Similar to many Australians, Ashleigh Barty decided not to leave the country after the pandemic broke out. The last time we saw her on court in 2020 was a semifinal loss to Petra Kvitova at Doha. Despite only participating in four events, the World No.1 still managed to compile a more than respectable 12-3 win/loss record, winning a title at Adelaide. She went out in the semifinals of the Australian Open to the eventual champion, Sofia Kenin. Due to the changes of the ranking criteria (allowing players to keep their 2019 points), Barty still held on to the No. 1 position in the WTA Rankings. After almost 11 months of not touching the court in front of a crowd, Barty showed up at the A Day at the Drive exhibition in Adelaide. Her closely-contested match against Simona Halep was an indication of great form. But little did we know that Barty’s level was about to explode.
A warm-up event of your dreams
In her first professional event after the hiatus, Barty reached the final. She showed a rather inconsistent level, but not as rusty as expected. Her championship match opponent, Garbine Muguruza, didn’t lose more than two games a set on her way to the final. The Spaniard is also very well accustomed to the conditions in Melbourne, having finished runner-up to Kenin at the Australian Open the year before. A rematch for that one came in the quarterfinals of the Yarra Valley Classic, with Muguruza completely dominating the play in a 6-2 6-2 victory. Muguruza’s next opponent, Marketa Vondrousova, was able to win just one game. On top of that, Barty’s true disposition was a bit of a question mark, boiling down to the fact that she did not face a top player before.
Throughout her injury hiatus, many internet haters seemed to be outraged with the fact that Barty still holds the No. 1 ranking. Some called her the worst player to hold that position ever, some considered her 2019 Roland Garros title a fluke. While these claims have absolutely zero credibility when you look at the stats and Barty’s incredible 2019 season from a wider perspective (four titles including Roland Garros, Miami, and the WTA Finals, great consistency), they were getting increasingly popular towards the end of 2020. Barty made us wait for her next appearance on the tennis court, but it was completely worth it. Her work ethic has always been commendable and the Australian just did what she does best–practiced hard and quietly did her job as best as she can.
Garbine Muguruza quickly broke into a 3-1 lead in the final. The Spaniard’s powerful strokes found the court just as often as throughout the week and it seemed like this could be another easy victory. At that moment, Muguruza seemed like a huge favorite to win the Australian Open two weeks later. But Ashleigh Barty has a skillset like none other in the current state of the game. Particularly thanks to her impressive backhand slice, she is great at disrupting power players and not giving them any rhythm from the ground.
The Lost Art of Slicing
While the slice is usually a big talking point on the men’s side of the game, it’s a pretty forgotten art in the WTA. It will always exist as a way to try to reset the rallies from a defensive position. The shot has so many other purposes though. All of them are usually on display when Barty plays, and they were the key to defeating Muguruza on Sunday. Making the Spaniard hit off a ball with such spin really shut down her powerful strokes. Barty would also slice short sometimes, forcing her rival into uncomfortable positions inside the court or forcing her to adjust her footwork to hit the ball cleanly. She wasn’t predictable, constantly mixing up the rotations and keeping Muguruza guessing. Her slice motion is quite long and the time the ball spends on the strings allows her to add a lot of extra sidespin.
The winning combination turned out to be a deadly slice and forehand combination. Barty was able to get many rallies back into neutral by forcing Muguruza to either respond with her own slice (nowhere near as good and way less inventive) or hit the ball with more spin, decreasing her power. Then she’d pull the trigger off her own forehand and open up the court. This allowed her to force the Spaniard into defense where she is nowhere near as dangerous. On top of that, it’s very hard to anticipate the direction of Barty’s forehand stroke, the difference between hitting it inside-out and inside-in from a backhand position only appears at the very last moment.
Ashleigh Barty Looking for glory at home
Barty’s style is absolutely unique in women’s tennis right now. That’s what makes her so effective and consistent, the number of adjustments that each of her opponents has to make to keep up. The Australian is now considered the biggest favorite to win the upcoming Australian Open. Her career at the top of the singles game is still relatively short (she made three doubles Grand Slam finals in 2013 before taking a break to play cricket professionally for a year), but she’s already managed to reach the quarterfinals twice at her home Slam. Other top contenders like Garbine Muguruza and Simona Halep are situated in the other half of the draw. However, Barty could face Karolina Pliskova in the quarterfinals or the defending champion, Kenin, in the final four.
Her campaign took off on an incredibly high note. Danka Kovinic had the misfortune of running into the Australian’s absolutely fantastic display. Barty’s serve was extremely effective, resulting in a loss of just three service points in the whole match. Kovinic lost the first 16 points of the match. While she later had a game point to get on the scoreboard but fell to–guess what–the slice and big forehand combination. Whatever happens during this fortnight in Melbourne, everyone left in the draw has to be afraid of Ashleigh Barty right now.
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