Ashleigh Barty doesn’t hit forehands as hard as, say, Naomi Osaka or even Kaia Kanepi. Or service bombs like Madison Keys. She doesn’t have the sheer side-to-side speed of Simona Halep or Coco Gauff. Not that it seems to matter.
“I think she just does everything really well,” Jessica Pegula said after a not-so-close encounter Tuesday. “Honestly, she just does everything I think a little bit better than everybody.”
Pegula was no accidental tourist. She was back in the Australian Open quarterfinals for a second consecutive year – and the American managed to win only two games against Barty.
“You feel pretty helpless,” Pegula said. “I think we’ve seen her do that to a lot of people. Unfortunately I was a victim tonight to that. Her game just kind of picks you apart a little bit, and it can be really frustrating.”
This is the secret sauce of Barty’s success, for she has come to master the minutia of professional tennis. Doing the right things, as she likes to say, the right way. It’s why she’s been ranked No.1 for 112 consecutive weeks (and counting) for the foreseeable future.
On Saturday, the pride of Ipswich, Australia, took down Danielle Collins 6-3, 7-6(2) in the Australian Open final. It was Barty's a third major title – and the second in the past three.
For the first time in these past two weeks, Barty was pushed to a tiebreak but finished the event without the loss of a set. Barty is 11-0 in 2022 and has won 22 consecutive sets.
From punching up her serve this offseason to honing her sliced backhand to implementing the specific strategies she and coach Craig Tyzzer devise, Barty’s evolution – in her game and approach – has been dazzling. True to her nature, though, it has been a steady rise through incremental steps.
It took her 17 appearances in Grand Slam singles draws to reach the fourth round for the first time, at the US Open in 2018; that run-up included a sabbatical from the sport in 2015-16 when she didn’t enter a single major. Since then, she’s played nine – and reached five quarters, three semifinals and come away with three titles, at Roland Garros in 2019, last year’s Wimbledon and now Australia.
“Each and every match I learn,” she said earlier this fortnight. “Every experience I learn from, whether it’s good, bad or indifferent. You have to be able to take learnings from every experience. That’s certainly been no different here in Australia. I’ve had some pretty tough lessons, but also some incredible moments.”
One of the most memorable was her streak of 63 service holds, going back to her title in Adelaide. It ended against Amanda Anisimova in the fourth round, but at that juncture there were only four players in the tournament (men and women) who had 50 percent or more of their first serves unreturned – Felix Auger-Aliassime, Matteo Berrettini, Gael Monfils and Barty.
Barty is listed at 5-foot-5. The four players ranked right behind – Aryna Sabalenka, Garbiñe Muguruza, Barbora Krejcikova and Karolina Pliskova – average nearly six inches taller. In a sport where leverage and angles are the currency of success, that’s a huge disadvantage. Naomi Osaka had the fastest serve so far here in Melbourne, in excess of 122 miles per hour. Barty, eight miles per hour slower, isn’t even in the Top 20.
“I’m not the biggest girl out there,” Barty said, “ but I know I’ve got a sound technique and I know if I can get my rhythm right and use it effectively, it can be a weapon.
“It’s more about the placement, thinking about what kind of return I’m going to get to try to set up the rest of the point. It’s the one shot in tennis that you have full control over. It’s more about trying to start [the point] on my terms as regularly as I can.”
During the Barty-Pegula match, broadcaster and four-time major champion Jim Courier compared Barty’s slice backhand to Roger Federer’s.
“Mine’s a long way off that,” Barty said. “Sometimes I try and use it when it’s my choice and I can be really, really aggressive with it. But being able to use it with variety and have different options has been a massive part of my game through this last couple of years of my career.”
It could be the biggest-difference maker, in terms of a single stroke, in the women’s game since the serve of Serena Williams in her prime. Madison Keys broke down the technical details.
“She’s able to hit it really no matter how big the ball that’s coming in,” Keys said, “which I think not a lot of other women in this era have been able to do. I think she does such a good job at resetting the point constantly, being able to get back to neutral off of a ball.
“You can’t do a ton off of her slice because it comes in so low. She can set it up to look for a forehand. Obviously, once Ash is looking for a forehand, then she can kind of start controlling the point.”
And so, advantage Barty.
There is a tendency in sports to focus on strengths. New England Patriots head coach Bill Belichick is famous for assessing an opponent’s greatest strength – and neutralizing it. Barty does the same thing. Her goal in every match: make the opponent uncomfortable – doing things they don’t like to do and, not coincidentally, things they’re not as good at.
“If there’s a shot or a pattern that’s hurting me and kind of putting me under pressure, I try and figure out a way how to get out of that pattern, [but] not necessarily just hit my way out,” Barty said. “I try and think my way out a little bit more first, and then try and find a way where I can hurt them.”
Some two million Aussies have been tuning into Barty’s matches, out of a population of 26 million. Does Barty fully comprehend what it would mean to this fiercely prideful island nation if an Australian ended a 44-year title drought here?
“Yeah, I do,” she said softly. “I can’t do any more than I can try. That’s all I can do. If it doesn’t happen, it doesn’t happen.
“I just have to hope that everyone understands that I’m giving it my best crack. But you go about it the right way, you do the right things and try and give yourself the best chance, that’s all you can do.”