Dominance Down Under

There was a moment in last night’s final, a moment when Barty’s streak of service dominance and zero sets dropped was being intensely threatened, a moment when the match looked certain to become complicated. Barty was up a set, but Danielle Collins had taken a 5-1 lead in the second. Though Collins lost one of the two breaks, she served for the set again at 5-3 and went up 30-love.

From here, it’s practically all about what the server does — they just have to win one of the next three points to get to set point. Many players slap a return at this stage, anxious to hurry things along to the deciding set, which they can begin on more even terms, with the advantage of serving first.

Barty chose a different tack: going out in a blaze of glory. At 30-love, she ran around a second serve and nailed a forehand winner down the line. Her forehand is one of the best in the world — a compact, heavy shot she can hit with pace to the smallest of areas — but at 30-15, she amazed me again with her trust in it. She opened up some space on the deuce court with an inside-out forehand, then wheeled around Collins’ crosscourt backhand to set up another forehand. Barty crushed it inside-in, the ball landing extremely close to the baseline.

I thought the ball was long. I waited for an “out” call, but it didn’t come: Barty had kissed the baseline. Had she missed, Collins would have had two set points on her serve, a virtual guarantee that the match would go to a third set. Two points and another huge forehand later, Barty had broken to get back on serve at 4-5.

From there, Barty was practically untouchable. Collins gathered herself commendably to hold serve for 6-5 while the vehemently pro-Barty crowd cheered her faults, but Barty would not allow her any further inroads. In the tiebreak, the Aussie took a decisive lead with a forehand winner and a smash. On match point, she ran down a Collins approach backhand and passed her cleanly with a crosscourt forehand. The crowd erupted, noise bursting from the rapturous fans like an ace from Barty’s racket. Barty had been subdued for most of the match, fist-pumping only mildly and showing little frustration even as she went down 1-5 in the second set. But upon winning the match she threw her head back and roared, both fists clenched. As Courtney Nguyen pointed out on Twitter, Barty had celebrated her first two majors with disbelief, but this reaction pulsed with elation. She was thrilled, but she hadn’t surprised herself, she was merely matching her expectations for herself.

Ash Barty celebrates her third major title and first at the Australian Open. Screenshot: Australian Open YouTube Channel

*****

With its deep talent pool, unpredictability has been a hallmark of the WTA since Serena Williams’ relentless dominance came to a stop in 2017. Barty has shifted the landscape recently, though. She has won two of the last three majors. She is the only active WTA player besides Serena with major titles on all three surfaces.

Barty has been world number one for over 100 weeks. It is obvious by now that like many others, her best level wins her the big titles, but unlike many others, she has been able to produce it readily. It is difficult to imagine her playing well and losing on any surface, such is the menace of her game.

Barty won 82% of points played on her first serve. She hit ten aces. She is one of the very best servers in the world. Being tall is beneficial to a serve, as a higher contact point opens up more possibilities for sharp angles and smaller targets to be hit. Ash Barty is not tall. At five feet, five inches, she is not just short, she is the shortest player in the top 30. And yet, she has one of the two or three best serves among them. Her service motion may be the most technically perfect of anyone in the world, such has been her ability to maximize the shot. Her slice is a fantastic, unusual stroke on the WTA, but her serve may well be historically fantastic.

The slice is perhaps the most talked about part of Barty’s game, but it’s more of a spiky shield than a sword. Barty’s topspin backhand is iffy at best and a liability at worst, and the slice allows her to protect that wing while keeping her opponents uncomfortable with versatile spins. Interestingly, Collins dealt with the slice very well — she crushed several crosscourt backhands, doing more damage to Barty’s weaker wing than anyone had been able to this tournament. And yet, Barty won the match in straight sets. Her strengths are so overpowering as to be able to practically erase her weakness.

*****

Barty has served, forehanded, and sliced her way to an uncommonly steady formula for success. It’s all out there for the Aussie; no big trophy looks out of reach. She is 25, now has three majors to her name, and has a big lead in the WTA rankings. More glory is ahead. Just how much depends on Barty herself, which is undoubtedly the way she likes it.

Published by Owen

Owen has been a tennis fan since Roland-Garros in 2016. Initially a Federer fan, his preferences evened out the more tennis he watched and the more he learned. He started a blog (https://racketblog.com/) in early 2019. In the summer of 2021, he got a media credential at the ATP 250 event in Newport, Rhode Island, and got to talk to a few players, including former world No. 5 Kevin Anderson and rising star Jenson Brooksby. Owen will argue to the death that the 2009 Australian Open semifinal between Rafael Nadal and Fernando Verdasco is the greatest match ever, he hates that one-handed backhands are praised so often for their subjective elegance (sucking praise away from the more effective two-handers), and he thinks the best part of tennis is its scoring system, the mental and physical challenge not far behind. You can follow him on Twitter @tennisnation.

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