How much can a narrative change in the space of one year? Based on the men’s field at the year-ending championships, we know there is no shortage of curveballs in tennis. Matteo Berrettini has, after all, gone from a nondescript one-note player (who many suspected would be most at home on clay) into a legitimate all-surface threat. And he’s done that quicker than you can ask “who’s that Italian?”
Like Berrettini, there’s another 23-year-old, serve-oriented player – but on the women’s side – who has completely flipped the script in 2019. Except that we didn’t realize how drastically things have changed with her in the last 12 months because she’s also the World No 1.
Ashleigh Barty started the year by losing a tough three-setter to Petra Kvitova in the Sydney final, adding further fuel to the perception that she’d always be on the backfoot against players bigger than her. And considering she’s listed as just 5’5”, there are a lot of players bigger than her. The tour seemed destined to be a perpetually uphill climb for the likeable Aussie.
But then she outhit Maria Sharapova in the Australian Open fourth round, and the narrative hit a snag. Her title run at Miami, where she beat a slew of powerful players (including her nemesis Kvitova), turned the seemingly far-fetched hopes of her fans into reality – she was now using her abundant natural gifts for offence rather than defence, and taking the game to her opponents no matter how hard they hit the ball.
By the time Wimbledon rolled around, Barty was a Slam champion and the top-ranked player in the world. Being outhit was the least of her concerns now; keeping her focus in long matches was the bigger issue. Barty had started showing a worrying tendency to collapse in the face of pressure and cough up random forehand unforced errors out of nowhere. Even her trusted backhand slice was betraying her in big matches.
It was easy to wonder whether Barty’s transformation from a lightweight into an aggressor had produced the unwanted side-effect of making her just as erratic as the shrieking ball-bashers that are a dime a dozen on the women’s tour.
Barty’s run at the WTA Finals in Shenzhen had all the ingredients to add to that perception. Barty was one of the title favourites (and after the injuries to Naomi Osaka and Bianca Andreescu, the outright favourite), but she was under immense pressure almost throughout the event.
The Aussie dropped her first set of the tournament to Belinda Bencic (before recovering to win in three), then went on to lose to Kiki Bertens — a result that left her hopes of qualifying for the semis hanging by a thread. She faced her old foe Kvitova in the last round-robin match, although the Czech wasn’t exactly a nemesis for Barty anymore. At the end of the Australian Open, Kvitova had held a 4-0 advantage in the head-to-head record. However, after getting her first win at Miami, Barty added another at Beijing.
The Aussie duly completed a three-peat by defeating Kvitova in straights at Shenzhen, before running into trouble again in the semis. Karolina Pliskova took the first set of their match and had two break points in the fourth game of the second; this was exactly the kind of situation where Barty had collapsed in many matches over the previous six months.
Not this time though.
Barty dug in, saved those breakpoints, and lost just three more games in the rest of the match. Her reward was a place in the final of the biggest-paying tournament in the history of the sport, against a player who had a Kvitova-esque 5-0 head-to-head advantage. Could Barty end the year in the same way that she had started her magnificent rise, by beating a woman she had never beaten before?
After the match, we were left scratching our heads over why exactly Barty had lost the first five contests of the matchup. She was authoritative from start to finish, outplaying Svitolina in almost every department. The Ukrainian didn’t play bad at all; she did her best to scramble into the corners and make her opponent play one extra ball, and she served as well as she had been doing all through the tournament. But Barty was too skilled, too athletic, too intelligent and just too good for her opponent.
She hit her point-ending forehand with confidence. She killed points at the net with both touch and power. She put Svitolina into uncomfortable positions with her wicked slice. She surprised her opponent with the down-the-line topspin backhand while being solid with the crosscourt one. And most importantly of all, she served missiles when she was really under pressure.
It is probably the biggest mystery in the sport how Barty has such a brilliant serve despite being one of the shortest players in the top 100. But there was nothing mysterious about the fact that she was lifting the glittering trophy at the end of the high-quality, 87-minute contest.
Barty was, plain and simple, the best player on show in the last match of the year. She was also, by most accounts, the best player on show in 2019 overall.
“It feels like it’s been a year that just hasn’t stopped,” Barty said after collecting the $4.42m prize money cheque, the largest ever won by any male or female tennis player. “It’s been a year of incredible ups and downs — I think more ups than downs. To cap it off with a very, very special night tonight in Shenzhen is really cool.”
What’s also really cool — if you’re a Barty fan anyway — is that she now has a nearly 2000-point lead at the top of the rankings. For the first time in recent memory, someone other than Serena Williams is the undisputed World No 1 as well as the most dominant player who regularly wins big titles. Barty won four of them in 2019, out of which one was a Slam, one a Premier Mandatory, and one the year-ending championship. The Aussie has literally ticked all the boxes this year.
Who would’ve thought we’d be saying that about a player who had never even reached a Slam quarterfinal at the start of 2019? A lot can change in the space of one year, and we have the amazing sport of tennis to keep reminding us of that.
Updated Date: Nov 04, 2019 14:37:52 IST