BIRMINGHAM, UK - The transition from clay to grass is one of the greatest challenges of the tennis calendar, and has tripped up many a Roland Garros champion over the years - but No.2 seed Ashleigh Barty was quick to find her feet on the Nature Valley Classic lawns, coming through a tricky first-round encounter with Donna Vekic 6-3, 6-4 in one hour and 11 minutes.
"I think it was probably as smooth as it could have gone," mused Barty afterwards. "I felt really good with my feet on the grass. We haven't had a hell of a lot of grass court time because of the weather but in a sense that made it even better because it was fresh, it was new. I could really just play by feel and try and work my way into the match.
"I do find [the transition] quite easy - I think because I love playing on it. Once I get back on the grass, I feel like a different person... knowing that there is not pressure for me and no real worries and stresses about the transition makes it a lot easier."
The Australian may feel like a different player with green lawns underfoot, but in other respects, the freshly minted Roland Garros champion insists, she's still the same as ever.
"I'm not really sure what it is meant to feel like," she smiled when asked about being a Grand Slam champion. "I don't feel any different myself. I'm still the same Ash Barty that I was three weeks ago. I'm the same Ash Barty I was two years ago."
As for feeling any extra pressure? She's taking it all in stride. " That's a nice burden to chuck on me, isn't it?" shje joked. "For me, nothing changes. It was really nice to come out now and kind of get back into a normal routine of playing matches again. If anything, it's taken the pressure off. I can just go out and enjoy it, enjoy every single match. It is an opportunity to try and be better and really go out there and just have fun."
Today, Barty had to overcome some patchy initial play and an in-form grass expert fresh off reaching the Nottingham final last week, but by the end of the match was in full flow on ther court where she had reached her first Premier final in 2017. "There are still aspects that I want to clean up and do a little bit better - but overall really happy with today," she assessed her performance. "It was kind of the perfect match for me. Obviously, Donna knows her way around a grass court pretty well, so I needed to be ready and be sharp and it was pretty good today."
A wayward serve and an opponent eager to make her mark made for a tough opening stretch for Barty, who commited four double faults throughout the first set. The 23-year-old needed to fend off three break points in her first service game, but could not repeat the escape in her second as Vekic inched in front courtesy of a canny dropshot.
However, errant Vekic forehands saw the Croat let the lead slip in the very next game - and over the rest of the set, Barty's game gradually began to click into place as Vekic fell away. A delicious half-volley pickup was a reminder of Barty's remarkable hand skills, and she repeatedly elicited errors from the 2013 runner-up with her deep, knifing slice. Another break of the Vekic serve followed in the eighth game as the World No.22's backhand began to misfire, and Barty served the set out with little trouble.
Vekic, who had been forced to dodge downpours and double up on two surfaces last week before losing an emotional heartbreaker of a final 2-6, 7-6(4), 7-6(4) to Caroline Garcia on Sunday, continued to leak errors to concede another break of serve as the second set got under way. By contrast, Barty continued to go from strength to strength: the World No.2 raised her first serve percentage from 48% to 64% between the first and second sets, and efficiently seized a double break for a 5-2 lead.
Having not faced a break point since losing serve in the third game of the match, Barty was challenged in trying to close out victory as Vekic came up with a sequence of bold groundstroke winners to break and cling on to the match.
But the Roland Garros victor's double break proved decisive: an exquisite combination of a short slice and a pinpoint lob was followed by a fifth ace to set up match point, which Barty seized as a Vekic dropshot found the net. Up next in the second round will be Nottingham semifinalist Jennifer Brady, who won her own delayed first round tie over Lesia Tsurenko 6-3, 6-3.