Ashleigh Barty defeated two-time Birmingham finalist Barbora Strycova 6-4 6-4 to reach her second final at the Birmingham Classic. She now stands just one win away from claiming the world #1 ranking in singles for the first time. Barty’s performance, though not perfect, was good on the whole. There were certainly moments in the match where Strycova was able to push her to the limit in both variety of ball and concentration in the longer exchanges.
But it was a match where Barty mostly looked in control of proceedings, and she was able to play her best tennis in the vital moments in the second set. Strycova is at her most effective when she can hit the ball with accuracy and take control of the point with her position on the court thanks to good depth. But there were too many phases of the match where the Australian had time on the ball, allowing her to pick her spots on the forehand side and rushing the Czech from the back of the court.
Nor did Strycova’s movement look as sharp as it had done earlier in the week. In key moments she was forced to resort to backhand and forehand slices on the stretch. If she was utilising the backhand slice as an aggressive option the match could have turned in her favour, but she was too often on the back foot. Once opponents are on the retreat against Barty on a grass court, they are in huge trouble, because her shot selection and depth, particularly on the forehand side, are typically exemplary. She did exactly that against Venus Williams in the last eight and again today.
However, Barty’s first-serve percentage is an area of the Australian’s game that may need to improve in the final and potentially in the later rounds at Wimbledon. She’s one of the better and more effective players on the tour when she gets her first serve into play consistently, as she’s shown not only this week but throughout the year. Indeed, the biggest difference between the two in this encounter proved to be that Barty was able to rely on a big first serve when the chips were down.
Strycova generated two break points up 15-40 in the third game of the second set, but Barty came up with two aces under pressure, changing the complexion of the match in a couple of points. That is the sort of tennis she has played all week at the Birmingham Classic. Her ability to find first serves down break point is just another example of her understanding of what she needs to do when under pressure. Barty then went on to break decisively in the ninth game and served things out to progress to the final.
Barty wasn’t perhaps playing at her best in the first set, managing just eight winners. But her performance improved as the match wore on. When she was able to play aggressive forehands early on in the rally, her fortunes improved markedly. She finished the match with 24 winners to 21 unforced errors, whilst Strycova struggled to penetrate Barty’s impressive defences. The Czech ended the semifinal with a measly nine winners from the back of the court and a whopping 28 unforced errors, many of which had come when she had been forced wide or beyond the baseline.
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Barty revealed the difficulties of playing someone like Strycova and talked about her overall level:
‘She has the ability to play with so much variety and adapt her game style to who she’s playing, and I think that is one of her biggest strengths. If something is not working, she has options to go to and she can go to options, B, C, D, all the way through the alphabet, she has that many shots and kind of, shots in her arsenal. And she can go to so many different things and play so many different styles. So it was important for me today to try and almost make it a little bit of a boring match and make it a little bit kind of serve and first shot and dominate on my part anyway.’
‘There’s a transition from every single singles match. Every time you step on the court it’s a different opponent, it’s a different occasion and I have to try and adapt and be as well prepared as possible for that particular person and that’s all that I can control, try and do that on my half, and if I’m able to execute on the day, it’s a bonus.’
One of the most reliable of attributes Barty was able to depend upon in this match was the accuracy of her serve. She confirmed that in her post-match press conference saying ‘Yeah, I felt like I had really good rhythm on my serve today. I knew it was important I could get up and try and hit my spots as much as possible and put the pressure back on Barbora to try and come up some bigger serves on her service game, so it was really nice to get out some tricky situations with some serves when I needed them.’
Barty also spoke about the elevated expectation and pressure of carrying her nation’s hopes this season and how she has tried to deal with that pressure now that the #1 ranking is firmly in sight:
‘I keep it very simple. I don’t focus on them at all. They are things I can’t control necessarily. I have to try and do what I can do and that is prepare and do as best that I can tomorrow and try and play a good tennis match and if I win, it’s a bonus. There are all things that come with it. But those things are certainly not what I’m worried about. It is not going to change the way that I sleep at night, if I don’t get there or not. If it happens, it happens. If it doesn’t, it doesn’t.’
Barty is still yet to drop a set of tennis this week in the singles. In the past ten years, there have been only two players that can say they’ve won the title in Birmingham without conceding a set and that is Sabine Lisicki in 2011 and Ana Ivanovic in the year of 2014. But don’t bet against Barty adding her name to that distinguished list.
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