CINCINNATI, OH, USA - Few would have predicted former World No.1 Ashleigh Barty's meteoric rise to the top of women's tennis, except, perhaps, for good friend and rival Maria Sakkari, who plays the top seed for a spot in the Western & Southern Open semifinals on Friday.
"It’s very tough to compare myself with Ashleigh because for me – and I said this last year in Indian Wells when I beat her – Ashleigh is the best player on the WTA tour," she said after outlasting two-time Wimbledon winner Petra Kvitova earlier in the week.
Moved to even hear her name in the same sentence as Barty's, the 24-year-old was effusive in her praise of the reigning Roland Garros champion, who first ascended to World No.1 after winning the Nature Valley Classic in Birmingham two months ago.
"At that time, she was only Top 20, so I’m glad that I said the truth a little bit earlier than most other people. It’s a compliment to say that my game looks like hers."
Barty and Sakkari last played Down Under in January, where the Aussie won in straight sets, and both relish the opportunity to face off for a third time in 18 months.
"Maria is an incredible chick," she said after surviving a tough three-setter against Estonia's Anett Kontaveit. "She's really one of my better friends on tour. She's a lovely girl. I don't think you can find anyone in the locker room that has a bad word to say about her.
"She's genuinely a humble, hard-working person. I think when people like that work hard, they're rewarded. This year she has been rewarded with some fantastic results. I have had some incredible matches with her in the past.
"I think these conditions suit Maria when she can use her kick serve, use her forehand when she has time. I think that's the challenge for me tomorrow, is to go out there and try and nullify that serve as best that I can and try and be on top of some points."
"You know my opinion of Ash," Sakkari added in her own post-match press conference. "She’s so cool. Every day, she’s like, ‘Hey mate!’ It’s so different. She’s so chill, and so relaxed. She’s one of the nicest girls in the locker room and on court. It’s very nice to have good people around us.
"We both like to hit with our forehands; we’re not very tall. She uses a little more slice and comes more to the net. I’m more about running and making more balls."
At opposite ends of the tactical specturm, Sakkari and Barty both make up physical deficits - the former is 5'8" and the latter is 5'5", the shortest player in the Top 10 - with heavy topspin forehands, kick serves, and nearly peerless levels of athleticism.
"I can tell you that I’ve been running so much in my training blocks that you cannot imagine," Sakkari smiled after rallying from a set down to defeat former doubles partner Aryna Sabalenka and score a third straight Top 10 win. "I have a fitness coach [George Panagiotopoulos] who was in track and field, and he really makes me run a lot. We’re really working hard, and we’re also doing heavy sessions on court."
Barty feels her focus on physicality has been essential to helping compete with the likes of Sabalenka, Kvitova, and former World No.1 Maria Sharapova, whom she beat in straight sets on Wednesday.
"For me personally it was a big shift and a big focus to try to make sure that I was the best athlete that I could be as well as the best tennis player that I could be. They go hand in hand.
"You can't hit a tennis ball if you can't get to it or can't move out to it. For me, that's one of my biggest focuses. I'm sure it is for a lot of other women, as well."
That athleticism was first on display on a big stage at this year's Australian Open, where she outlasted Sharapova to reach a maiden major quarterfinal, and backed that up with three Top 10 wins at the Miami Open over Kiki Bertens, Kvitova, and Karolina Pliskova, who appeared visibly fatigued as Barty effortlessly tracked and redirected her flatter - and typically lethal - serve and groundstrokes.
With similarly undersized former No.1 Simona Halep using her own brand of athleticism to follow Barty by capturing the Wimbledon title, what appears to be a paradigm shift is unsurprisingly simpler to the straight-talking Aussie.
"We are just finding a way to get in and to neutralize. It doesn't really matter if you're big, tall, or short or strong or whatever it is. It's kind of any shape or form can work, and you just have to play your brand of tennis, trust yourself, do the work, and then put yourself out there and try to do the best that you can."