It is common to construct a perception of a tennis player around the best stroke of their game. Andre Agassi was the ultimate returner. Roger Federer produced genius with his one-handed backhand. Simona Halep’s two-handed backhand was singularly lethal. The first time I watched Hailey Baptiste, in the opening round of the WTA’s inaugural Trophee Lagardere in Paris, I reverted to a similarly reductive diagnosis: Baptiste is a great forehand.
In my defense, I had just seen the 20-year-old American crush consecutive inside-out forehands for winners against her first-round opponent, Anastasia Zakharova. Within the first few games, Zakharova seemed to reach a similar conclusion to my own, as the Russian increasingly committed to finding Baptiste’s backhand. The strategy only partially succeeded. In the opening set, which Baptiste pulled out 7-6 after a close tiebreaker, the American hit 12 forehand winners, compared to only two backhands.
After watching Baptiste close out the match in a 7-6(5) 6-4 victory, I recognized her game was deeper than my initial assessment. The Washington, D.C. native possessed an awareness of her forehand that weaponized complementary aspects of her game, namely a timely drop shot and penetrating backhand slice. Despite losing 3-6 6-3 6-2 in the following round to world No. 49 Beatriz Haddad Maia, Baptiste seemed to gain confidence from her performance on the clay of Trophee Lagardere. “I want to start using my drop shot more, I think it’s pretty good,” she told me after the three-set loss. “A lot of girls hate moving forward like that.”
Hailey Baptiste at French Open Qualifying
Only a week after her Trophee Lagardere exit, Baptiste is poised to earn a qualifying spot at Roland Garros 2022. In the first round of the three-round qualifying tournament, she dispatched young Australian Olivia Gadecki 5-7 6-3 7-5. Later, on Wednesday, Baptiste persevered through an early medical timeout to beat Austrian Julia Grabher 1-6 6-3 6-2. Now, Friday’s match against German Nastasja Schunk, who upset 16-seed Laura Pigossi on Tuesday, will determine Baptiste’s stay in Paris.
Qualifying for Roland Garros would not only validate Baptiste’s progress on clay this season, but also solidify her as a consistent American contender on the surface. Her best career Grand Slam finish came at the French last year, when she beat Russian Anna Blinkova 6-1 6-4 before falling to fellow American Sofia Kenin in the second round. However, the way her game is firing so far, there’s no telling how deep she could go in this year’s Roland Garros with a win on Friday.
Main Photo from Getty.