Nine match wins. Two titles. One brand new sportscar. Not a bad way to celebrate your 25th birthday.
And after Ashleigh Barty’s title run at the Porsche Tennis Grand Prix in Stuttgart last week, her third WTA crown of the year, it won’t be a surprise if we see the Australian celebrating another grand slam title at Roland Garros next month.
It has not been a simple journey to the top for Barty. A teenage prodigy, she won the junior Wimbledon title in 2011 aged 15. But after her first full year on the circuit in 2014, the grind of the tour had become too much and she announced she was taking an indefinite break from tennis, so that she could, in her own words, “experience life as a normal teenage girl and have some normal experiences.”
During her break she turned her attention to cricket, exhibiting her talents as an all-round sportsperson by playing for the Brisbane Heat in the inaugural season of the Women’s Big Bash League.
Tennis remained her first love though, and she returned to the sport in 2016. More prepared for day-to-day life on tour, and with coach Craig Tyzzer by her side, she quickly rose up the rankings and was soon inside the top 20 in both singles and doubles.
By 2019 she was ready to take the next step. She followed up victory at the prestigious Miami Open with a maiden grand slam title, defeating Marketa Vondrousova to claim the French Open crown. That run in Paris started a 15-match winning streak which also saw her pick up the title on grass in Birmingham the following month. Her explosive start to the year propelled her to No. 1 in the world rankings for the first time. She finished the year on top as well, after winning her fourth title of the year at the season-ending WTA Finals in China.
The onset of the COVID-19 pandemic put a halt to her charge, and after playing the Middle East swing at the start of 2020, the Australian chose to return home to Brisbane and sit out the rest of the year.
It was a controversial decision. The revised ranking system introduced by the WTA to deal with the pandemic meant she did not lose the points she gained for her wins at Roland Garros and Miami in 2019 because she was unable to defend her titles. That substantial tally has been enough to keep her atop the rankings ever since, despite Naomi Osaka winning back-to-back grand slams at the US Open and Australian Open in recent months.
Barty has been criticised for seemingly taking advantage of the system. But a closer look at her numbers suggests she is exactly where she should be.
Including her win at the WTA Finals in 2019, she has won five of the last 11 tournaments she has played in. In four of those title runs, including in Stuttgart last week, she beat three or more top-10 players on her way to victory. Indeed, Barty has not lost to a top-10 player since the group stage of the season-ending event in Shenzhen nearly 18 months ago.
In Stuttgart, she was challenged all the way. After a straightforward win over German Laura Siegemund in her opening contest, Barty was forced to come from one set down in three straight matches against top-10 players Karolina Pliskova, Elina Svitolina and Aryna Sabalenka. The 1 hour, 47 minutes she spent on court against Sabalenka in the final the shortest of those three contests. Still though, she was able to prevail.
“Tennis is a strange sport at times,” Barty told a press conference after the final. “Even though you can be a set down, I didn’t feel I was very far off. I had a couple of break points and opportunities myself. You take one or two of those and it’s a completely different ball game.
“I think it’s important to just continue to work in the right direction, try to do right things and know that over time you hopefully get the result, and if you don’t, you just keep going for the next time, and I think that’s a massively important attitude to have.”
In the final against Sabalenka, a player she’s faced seven times in the last three years, the momentum swung hard in the second set. The Belarusian hit 14 of her 39 unforced errors as Barty leveled the contest in just 20 minutes. It was more balanced in the decider, but ultimately it was the world No. 1 who took her chances when they came – going 5-for-12 on break points in the match, compared to just 2-for-10 from Sabalenka.
Throughout the tournament, Barty enjoyed supreme consistency on her first serve. Despite standing at just 1.66m (5-foot-5), she sent down 19 aces for the week and won an incredible 79.8% of points on her first ball – the best of any player at the tournament.
After becoming the first reigning world No. 1 to win in Stuttgart since Justine Henin in 2007, and being presented with her new Porsche, Barty wasn’t done. She returned to the court a few hours later to partner with Jennifer Brady to claim the doubles title as well. American great Lindsay Davenport was the last player to win both finals at this event, 20 years earlier.
“It’s extremely humbling to be even mentioned in the same sentence as both Justine [Henin] and Lindsay [Davenport],” Barty said. “They are both incredible champions, legends of our sport, and to be able to have a little bit of a shared history within this tournament is really cool.
“This week’s been phenomenal for me. We’ve played a lot of tennis, a lot of matches. And I’ve certainly felt like I’m taking my tennis to kind of a new level, in a sense of being able to be calm and play with freedom and play without consequence in a way, just going out there and try to bring my best every single point.”
If there were any doubts about Barty’s place among the game’s elite, her blistering start to 2021 has surely put them to rest. She has now been world No. 1 for a total of 73 weeks – more than Kim Clijsters, Maria Sharapova or Venus Williams ever managed during their illustrious careers. She’s likely to stay there through the clay court season and onto grass, with a lead of 1,855 points over Osaka in the world rankings.
The Japanese star shapes as her biggest rival for the crown – Osaka has won the last two slams on offer. Both of those came on her favored hard courts though, and she has traditionally found it much tougher on clay and grass. She holds a combined 10-7 win-loss record at the French Open and Wimbledon in her career and has never progressed past the third round at either slam.
She also hasn’t faced Barty in nearly 18 months. The last time they met was in the final of the China Open in 2019, when Osaka came out on top in a tough three-set battle.
A lot has changed since then though – in the world, and on the tennis court – and many fans will be hoping to see Barty and Osaka go head-to-head again soon. Whether that is on the clay of Madrid this week, or at Roland Garros later in May, it can’t come soon enough.
Design by Matt Sisneros.