World No.1 Ashleigh Barty wasn't sure what her 2021 season would hold after being sidelined from competition for nearly a year due to the pandemic. But eight months and 12 tournaments on, the Australian has cemented her status at the top of the game after following her Wimbledon victory with her fifth title of the season, at the Western & Southern Open.
Barty did not lose a set en route to the Cincinnati title, capping off her flawless run with a 6-3, 6-1 win over Jil Teichmann in Sunday's final. In addition to handing Teichmann her first Top 10 loss of the season, Barty defeated three major champions along the way in Victoria Azarenka, Barbora Krejcikova and Angelique Kerber.
"This week it was completely 'nonresult-focused.' It was about preparing in the best way possible, knowing that we wanted to be ready for New York in a couple of weeks' time," Barty told reporters after the win. "Now that we've only got a week in between, we have played plenty of matches, and now it's about kind of refining as best we can to hopefully be feeling good come the first round in New York and just try and do the best that we can there."
The 25-year-old leaves Cincinnati full of confidence and eyeing the final Slam of the season at the US Open, which begins in one week. Barty now leads the tour in titles and match wins (40) and boasts a 14-1 record against Top 20 opponents this season.
"There are no certainties in sport, no certainties in tennis," Barty said. "It's just about playing each and every day as best you can as they come and not focusing or concerning yourself or your self-worth with results."
Barty spoke to WTA Insider after the final to discuss her tactical adjustments in Cincinnati and what has fueled her during this exhilarating but exhausting five-month road trip.
WTA Insider: After you won the 2019 French Open, your first major, you went out and won your next WTA event, winning Birmingham to rise to No.1. This year, you win Wimbledon and come out in your next WTA event in Cincinnati and win. How would you describe your mentality and your ability to maintain your level and focus after these massive wins?
Barty: Some weeks it's easier than other weeks. Some weeks following big wins, you do feel super confident and you feel like in a way you know exactly what you want to do on the court. You almost have this overriding feeling of confidence and assertiveness on the court. You can be aggressive. You can trust yourself. There is no doubt.
I think sometimes after big wins - and I felt it both times after the French Open and after Wimbledon - there's been a little bit of a big crash, more emotionally than anything else, because there's so much invested into that event. But I'm so incredibly lucky to have such a good team around me who can put things into perspective and then also lift me up and lighten things up, typically those weeks after big events.
I remember after the French Open, Tyzz and I, we went off and played golf for a week at the Belfry in the UK. A lot of the time we were kind of just relaxing, chilling, spending time away from each other. We'd spend a lot of time together. And then being able to flip a switch and say, we've got another opportunity at Birmingham here. You love the grass, go out there and enjoy it. I think when I bring that enjoyment back into the tennis instantly, I find that my game kind of flows on over.
That's no different to after Wimbledon. It was probably the strangest feeling of my life in those days after winning Wimbledon. I kind of wasn't sure what I should be doing. I didn't know what to do.
It certainly took a little bit longer. I felt like I still had a lot of fatigue in Tokyo. I had a lot of fatigue the last two weeks. Even at the start of this week, I was a little bit unsure of what my tennis was going to be like, purely from a mental and emotional standpoint.
But being able to kind of scrap through practice and trust myself, knowing that, give yourself a chance to play, give yourself a chance to work into the tournament and you'll kind of find it. I think we've been able to do that this week again.
WTA Insider: You mentioned earlier in the week that you weren't quite sure where your tennis level was at the moment. Heather Watson played a great match against you in your opener and you were able to scratch out a win. At what point did things snap into place for you here?
Barty: I felt the match against Heather was exactly what I needed in the sense of having to fight and scrap, win some big points. Sometimes it's not always about how you play the entire match. It's how you play those key points. Knowing that in in the big moments, even when it was 3-all in the first set, I think when I got to 6-6 in the second, I'd created opportunities throughout that second set to break and I wasn't able to grab it and then played a brilliant buster.
I think being able to play those big points well, almost gave me that sense of relief. 'Ok, it's still there. It's alright. You're settled now.'
Then, playing against Vika, I remember sending my team a message saying that we have to go to another level. We have to go to that next level to compete with her. Once I was able to play that match really cleanly, that almost relaxed me in a sense of going right-o, your tennis is there. It's just going to be about executing a game plan day in, day out.
Being able to relax into that, enjoy the tactical changes in each match and the tactical nuances in each match and being able to execute them really well was a big part of that this week.
WTA Insider: You mentioned in your press conference that given the conditions in Cincinnati this week, you were making a concerted effort to go after your serve more. Can you talk about coming to that conclusion?
Barty: Purely, I felt like these balls, you get value out of being really aggressive. It's a tough ball with the courts here in Cincinnati to use a lot of spin. They're tough to get up and down quickly with the kick serve or actually move a lot with the slice serve. So I felt like at times I had to go flatter purely to hit through the court.
It's still a bouncy, lively court, so without putting a lot of spin on it, you get the advantage of a slightly higher bounce. At times I felt like it was just hard to control off the return. So being able to be aggressive off serve then gave me more time for my first shot after serve.
The match that kind of stands out probably the most to me is against Angie. She's one of the best returners in the world and often I was able to get her to be hitting up off returns and then I had time to step around and use my forehand in that match. I think being able to control more points - not just get cheap points - but control points to how I wanted to play and the patterns that I wanted to play against my opponents was a key element in being able to play a really clean week throughout the whole thing.
WTA Insider: With the season you're having and the results that you've built up already this year, do you feel like you're playing with house money? You said in your press conference that this week wasn't about results, which seemed to give you the freedom to tinker with your game with an eye towards the long term.
Barty: I think there was probably a part of me that was a little bit unsure of how this year would go for a couple of reasons. One being, 7-8 eight months out of the tour last year, and two, being in a completely new adventure, a new scenario, a new feeling for me of being away from home for so long.
We were going to have to find ways to re-energize. We were going to have to prioritize weeks. That was going to be a massive part of our year, was scheduling correctly to make sure that we felt like we could peak at the right times. Whether we actually got the result is irrelevant. But actually to understand me as a human, before the athlete, and making sure that I was fresh for the big moments.
After an exciting Australian summer, winning a tournament at home, making a quarterfinal at home, Miami was a big tournament that I circled. I wanted to make that the standout event. I wanted to defend my title. I wanted to prove a few people wrong. And I really enjoyed that week. Everything from there has been a flow-on effect and different challenges throughout each tournament, without a doubt.
I've played a lot of tennis, I've played a lot of matches, and there haven't been too many where I've come off the court and been disappointed with the output, which is all that I can ask. It's irrelevant whether I win matches or titles. I certainly know that, all for maybe one or not even two matches this year, have I been disappointed with my output. That's all I can ask of myself.
Having that accountability on me, that I want to bring that every single day, has made the year more fun, has almost forced myself to play better tennis and therefore win more matches. I think being able to put myself in that big situation more and more times has been really exciting.
WTA Insider: You circled Miami and you won it. You circled Wimbledon and you won it.
Barty: I think there's sometimes the illusion that you can feel entitled or you can feel like you deserve it before you've earned it. For me, that's a massive part of it. It's OK to talk about what I want. But it's also really important to accept that you don't always get what you want and having to work your way through it.
I know the work that I've put in with my team. That's where all the gold lies. That's where all of our good stuff hides. Then, when I get to come out here and I get to enjoy my matches and when I'm really locked in, that gold stuff comes forward and that's when I play my best tennis.
That's the attitude, having that accountability of myself, that no matter how I'm feeling, no matter what kind of tennis I'm playing, the mental and emotional output and the energy that I kind of present each and every match is the most important thing. That's led us to playing a lot of tennis this year. That's led to a lot of matches. It's also led to emotional highs and some pretty crushing lows and feelings of being completely wrecked and depleted and tired.
But being able to then step back up again the next week and expect that of myself, that we've got the energy no matter what, is really important.
WTA Insider: Five months into this road trip. How are you staying mentally fresh?
Barty: It's Day 159, but no one's counting, right?
I can promise you I'm exhausted, but I'm also extremely grateful and appreciative that I still get to come out here and do what I love. I think this week, something that seems so simple but we know it's not simple in the current world that we live in, is having crowds. One real energy booster for me this week was seeing all the young kids and seeing smiles on the kids' faces when we were practicing.
There was one kid on the very first day we practiced, he was sitting behind the court and he turns to his dad and says, 'Oh, I love watching Ash play, it's amazing how she hits a ball.' And I was like, oh, that's pretty cool. That's cool to hear from a young kid who's come to a tournament, who loves tennis, who has probably been craving this tournament for two years. And to be here and provide me with that energy was just awesome.
Being able to really put an emphasis on the enjoyment factor this week, of going, you know what, we're here for a good reason. We're here doing what we love and that's all that matters. Go out there and have fun. Remember that there are kids here that are having fun with you. That's something that really does lift me up.