If the first set tiebreaker between Ashleigh Barty and Karolina Pliskova at the Miami Open was anything to go by, Barty seemed to be a reincarnation of a player from a bygone era. Here was a player who wasn’t trying to hit the cover off the ball on every shot. Could it get more alien than that?
At 1-1 in the breaker Barty broke open a rally, but with a touch of finesse rather than a burst of power. Instead of muscling a topspin backhand deep and hard, she sliced a delicate drop shot that completely changed the dynamic of the rally – and also of the match.
There have been plenty of drop shot winners before, even in today’s times of all-or-nothing tennis. But Barty’s drop shot was different; it was a culmination of a series of soft cuts and bruises that she had been inflicting with her backhand slice all through the set. Pliskova had dug out enough of those low balls to take the set into overtime, but this was one low ball too many.
If the song ‘Killing me softly’ was a tennis player, its name would have been Ash Barty.
The win over Pliskova has given the Barty the biggest title of her career, and by most accounts, it is likely to be the first of many. Her rise over the last couple of years has been steady if not spectacular, and at 22 she has all the time in the world to carve out a permanent place for herself in the sport’s top tier.
Barty’s eclectic game has always appealed to the connoisseurs of old-school craftiness, but there was always the question of how effective it could be in today’s times. Ever since the early 2000s, when the Williams sisters revolutionized the game to make it heavily predicated on raw power, the practitioners of touch tennis have seen a gradual and seemingly irreversible downturn in their fortunes. While the Monica Niculescus of the world have been reduced to curiously entertaining but irrelevant side-shows, the Agnieszka Radwanskas have been worn down into retirement by the sheer force of their opponents’ shot-making.
But Barty has a couple of things that most other touch players don’t: a great serve, and point-ending power on her forehand. In the final against Pliskova, she outscored the ‘Ace Queen’ 15 aces to six, and outhit the powerful Czech 41 winners to 22. So effective was she at moving Pliskova out of position that she didn’t even need to use her second most important weapon – her razor-sharp net play – to win the match.
Of course, part of Barty’s reluctance to approach the net was down to Pliskova’s weight of shot. The Czech simply doesn’t hit too many floating replies to allow for putaway volleys, and Barty was particularly wary of Pliskova’s devastating two-handed backhand. But when you can do so much damage with your movement and topspin and slice, why take the added risk of charging the net?
Barty’s transcendent athleticism and hand-eye coordination have never been in doubt ever since she shocked the world by taking a hiatus from tennis and turning her focus to cricket. Her year of success in Australia’s domestic circuit – including a spell in the Women’s Big Bash League – was enough to convince everyone that she had the ability to do just about anything she wanted with a tool designed to send a round object into vacant space.
And Barty’s special brand of skills was on display all through the Miami Open. While she can out-serve and outhit most of her opponents, her surprisingly small height – she is listed as just 5’4” – also gives her the ability to scamper around the court and make her opponents hit uncomfortable shots even when they are on the charge. Her last four matches in the tournament were against bigger and stronger players – Kiki Bertens, Petra Kvitova, Anett Kontaveit and Pliskova; she could win all four because none of those players could match her combination of varied offense and speedy defense.
“I had to keep it physical, make as many balls as possible and keep my running shoes on,” Barty said after the final. She makes it sound simple, but anybody who watched the match would know it wasn’t just about running. It was also about smartly redirecting the ball from defensive positions; about hitting her forehand into the corners whenever she got a short reply; and most importantly, about masking the deficiencies of her two-handed backhand by unfurling a slew of wicked slices – many of which ended as stone-cold winners.
Barty is that rare specimen who combines the topspin-heavy power of the modern era with the deft touch of the pre-2000s era. Whether that is a recipe for sustained success is still up in the air, but Barty’s 2019 season so far has certainly made a strong case for its long-term viability.
The 22-year-old started the year with a final appearance in Sydney (where she was only subdued in a third-set tiebreaker by Kvitova) and followed that up with a maiden Slam quarter-final at the Australian Open. She then single-handedly won Australia’s Fed Cup tie against USA, and broke into the top 10 for the first time last week.
A maiden Premier Mandatory title was the logical next step. What’s next, a singles Slam title? The woman herself isn’t thinking that far ahead.
“You don’t get these opportunities every single day so it was important for me to continue to try and do the right things and enjoy the moment as well,” she said after lifting the trophy.
As an aside, Barty has played a whole lot of doubles all through her climb up the singles hierarchy, and this week she teamed up with Victoria Azarenka to reach the semi-finals. Having won her maiden doubles Slam at the US Open last year with CoCo Vandeweghe, Barty knows what it takes to succeed at the highest level of the sport, and that will likely come in handy as she tries to break new ground in singles.
What will also come in handy is the truckload of special skills that her affinity to doubles has given her. It’s not hard to see where Barty’s ease with slicing and volleying comes from; she’d been excelling at doubles even before her brief interlude in cricket, and all that experience has made her a more well-rounded player today than most of her peers.
Barty has proven that she can be the personification of the song ‘killing me softly’ – as she was at that 1-1 point in the tiebreaker. But it would perhaps be more appropriate to say that she is the personification of the phrase ‘killing me diversely’.
No other top player has quite as much variety in her game as Barty does right now, and it will be fun to see just how far the Aussie can go with her unique style.
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Updated Date: Mar 31, 2019 13:47:26 IST