If you’re lucky enough to have access to the Wimbledon grounds on 'Middle Sunday', you will run into quite a lot of players as they walk to and fro from the practice courts. Most of these players are accompanied by sizable entourages, made up of their coaches and trainers and any number of other assistants. Which is why I almost didn’t recognise Ashleigh Barty as she strode past me just across from Henman Hill.
For one thing, she was walking with her head firmly to the ground, making her look even shorter than she is. For another, she was completely alone — her coaches were presumably going to join her later, but she was ready to get a jump on her practice session without them. The world No 1 has no starry airs around her, even though she is a bona fide star. And that’s what has made her such a popular and lovable champion.
But does her lack of ego — or maybe you can call it killer instinct — hurt Barty sometimes? It’s tough to say for sure based on the evidence of her fourth round match against Alison Riske, because Riske is an accomplished grasscourter who was on top of her game for two whole sets. But you have to wonder whether Barty could have done something to reverse the momentum in the third set, and whether she was stopped because she didn’t believe in herself enough.
The start of the match went swimmingly for the Aussie, as she imposed her attack-based game on the slightly inconsistent Riske. She was serving well and finishing points with her forehand and volley efficiently, giving no time for the American to get into the rallies. In some of her matches this week, Barty’s lightning quick footwork has made it look like she’s flying across the turf — and she seemed to be flying into the quarterfinals during that first set.
But in the second set she inexplicably lost her first serve — and with it her confidence. Serving at well below 50 percent, Barty gave Riske too many chances at starting points on her terms. That’s a criminal offense against a player who loves taking control of points with deep groundstrokes, and Barty never recovered.
Riske lived up to her name in the last two sets, taking a good amount of risks to keep Barty on the backfoot. She served well, took big cuts on the return, and was more proactive in the rallies. She also dealt remarkably well with Barty’s backhand slice, forcing the Aussie to try and get closer to the lines with it and ultimately miss.
The American has a history of doing well on grass, having defeated a slew of quality opponents on the surface over the years. She won the Libema Open on grass just a couple of weeks ago, and 11 of her 18 career Slam match wins have come at Wimbledon. She’d never made a deep run in SW19 before though; this quarterfinal (or beyond) run was due for a while.
Now Riske is not a big server, doesn’t hit the hardest groundstrokes and doesn’t even approach the net too often. So what makes her so good on grass?
By her own assessment, there’s no logical reason to it. “When I go on grass, I don’t really think about anything,” she said after the match. “It just kind of happens. It’s just something that I feel like I’ve been natural at since I first stepped foot on it. I don’t know why. I don’t know how.”
But looking from the outside, there do seem to be a few crucial factors that aid her grasscourt play. It’s a combination of the little things that she does well, rather than one or two obvious weapons in her arsenal.
Riske takes the ball early, as anyone hoping to do well on grass needs to. Her third round match against Belinda Bencic was an exhibition of on-the-rise hitting; both players refused to let the ball ever get to its highest point, preferring instead to use the incoming momentum and redirect it with precision. But Riske has an added advantage — she is more courageous in her shot-making than most. While Bencic used her reflexive play mainly to react and defend, Riske looked to create and attack.
Risks is also an expert at changing the direction of the ball. Against Barty she was never content to settle into monotonous patterns, even if those patterns were working for her. She routinely surprised the Aussie with a down-the-line change-up, and was alert enough to rush forward at those instances and put away the winner. It goes without saying that she’s comfortable at the net; she may not be the most instinctive or traditional volleyer, but when she finds herself in the forecourt she ensures she finishes the point one way or another.
What could Barty have done differently to counter Riske’s deadly grasscourt game once it was in the groove? She could have been more assertive with her backhand; too many times she allowed Riske back into the point by choosing the slice (which wasn’t working) instead of the topspin drive.
She could have also tried slowing things down in order to regain the mojo on her serve. Barty seemed to be rushing between points in the end, recalling the way a player of similar disposition — Kim Clijsters — reacted when things weren’t going her way. That didn’t help at all; instead of rediscovering her serve, she lost the other parts of her game too.
This is the first match Barty has lost in over a month, and she’s now in danger of losing the World No 1 ranking as well. But she remains as positive and professional as ever.
“Obviously it’s a tough pill to swallow,” she said later. “In the same breath, it’s been an incredible few months. New ground for me here at Wimbledon. This is the best we’ve done.”
All of this really is new territory for her, and maybe with time she will grow more comfortable at embracing the status of the top dog. Maybe in future close matches she will take her time and trust her game more. Most fans would be hoping that she does, because her game is too good for a fourth round exit at Wimbledon.
And where does Riske go from here? Into a brick wall, judging on paper; her next opponent is Serena Williams. But this past month has taught us that on grass, you write Riske off at your own peril. If she gets rolling with her on-the-rise groundstrokes again, even Serena might be in a spot of bother.
Updated Date: Jul 08, 2019 23:05:48 IST