World number one Ashleigh Barty was in devastating form in her quarter final math on Tuesday with her heavy forehands routinely finding the lines against Ajla Tomljanovic. She won 6-1, 6-3. Her round of 16 match on 5 July against the French Open champion Barbora Krejcikova was a more subtle affair, full of angles and variety, one of the best of the tournament. Krejcikova was considered a doubles specialist until a summer of tournament wins at Strasbourg and Roland Garros set her off on a 15 match winning streak. Her game exploits every corner of the court. Barty, meanwhile, combines touch with thunder. Both she and Krejcikova represent a welcome departure from the slugging from the baseline that dominates contemporary tennis.
Even so, when Krejickova followed a powerful serve to Barty’s backhand by racing to the net, the Australian’s response had commentators and fans gasping. One aspect of Barty’s game is that she appears to have a 360 degree view of her opponent’s every move, which enables her to adapt accordingly. Barty noticed the Czech had closed in on the net while hitting a very deep volley to Barty’s forehand side. Barty only had time to block the ball back but improvised in an instant to pull off a half-volley lob. “The type of shot only Ash Barty can play. Hand skills from heaven,” exulted the commentator.
In many respects, Barty’s charm is that her strokes often seem a tribute to a bygone era. Her backhand slice and her inventive play are evocative of her idol, the indigenous Australian Evonne Goolagong Cawley, who won Wimbledon exactly 50 years ago. The Australian sports columnist Greg Baum aptly wrote of Barty’s tennis earlier this year, “She kills with kindness.” Miraculously though, for someone who is, at 5 feet 5 inches, the shortest player in the top 20, Barty can mix things up with thundering forehands and huge serves. Aces and unplayable serves struck time and again in the second half of Monday’s match got her out of trouble when she looked on the verge of losing her serve.
But as Barty reached the semifinals of Wimbledon for the first time yesterday, that achievement also cast a spotlight on how erratic her game has been at the four Grand Slam tournaments over the past several years, which could yet bedevil the 25-year-old’s progress this week. Until this week, the world number 1 had never before reached even the quarters at either the US Open or Wimbledon. She won the French Open once in 2019, which propelled her to number one and has won the important hardcourt tournament in Miami a couple of times, but this patchy record at the majors has meant Barty has played in the shadow of Naomi Osaka, a two-time Australian and US Open winner.
This Wimbledon is a defining moment: If Barty can win the championship, she will have proved that she has the consistency to win seven consecutive matches as Grand Slam tournaments demand. If Barty falters again, in a field depleted by the absence of both Osaka and Simona Halep, who won Wimbledon in 2019, she runs the risk of being dismissed as one of those players whose talents far outstripped their ability to win tournaments.
Much like Cawley, Barty’s huge talent means that stroke selection is a multiple choice exam with too many answers that seem right. In the past ten days, Barty has been content to slice her backhand time and again when her more aggressive two-handed backhand could have finished the point. While her deft touch also recalls Justine Henin and Martina Hingis, both about an inch taller than her, Barty often seems to lack their mental toughness and resolve.
Paradoxically this weakness is part of Barty’s charm, as it was also Cawley’s. For them, tennis is a game; the All England Club a club rather than the host of a multi-million dollar event. Cawley’s childhood had been marked by the Australian government often taking indigenous children like her from their parents and placing them in foster homes. Her first tennis racket was made from a wooden fruit crate. In a moving Wimbledon video narrated by Barty last year, Cawley suggests her childhood explained why she took match-play lightly.
Feeling burned out in 2014, Barty took two years off from tennis and became a cricket league-level player, playing for the Brisbane Heat team. In self-imposed exile for all of last year, because Australia’s stringent quarantining rules made playing the US Open, the French and other tournaments difficult, Barty whittled down her golf handicap from 10 to 4. Goolagong could have won many more Grand Slams if her concentration had not wavered for entire sets at a time. Barty also suffers from similar lapses.
At Wimbledon this year, Barty has had the additional problem that she is coming back after a hip injury forced her to retire at Roland Garros in the second round. Rehab and recovery meant that she had to sit out the grass court events that followed. Like Roger Federer, who is coming back after a much longer layoff and two knee surgeries last year, Barty’s first week wins came despite her struggling to find her rhythm. "Sometimes, maybe our expectations are too high. Grass is not an easy surface," the former Australian player Wally Masur told The Age, the Melbourne newspaper, last week of Barty’s occasionally erratic form. "Wimbledon’s not the easiest place to get rhythm, find your feet and get confident.”
Still, Barty’s wily game on court and her easy charm in interviews afterwards has put her centre stage at this Wimbledon. In the first round, after beating Carla Sanchez Navarro, who was returning after treatment for cancer, Barty seemed to lead the standing ovation for her opponent at the end. Embracing Sanchez Navarro at the net, Barty told her it had been a privilege to be on court with her. After beating Krejcikova on Monday, she paid tribute to the Czech’s incredible summer and downplayed her own achievements, saying playing at Wimbledon was “the fun part.” For fans around the world, getting to know Barty better this Wimbledon has not just been “fun”. Barty has redeemed a sometimes lacklustre tournament with many shining moments of humility and humour; the Australian world number one has been a role model and set a graceful example for us all.
Rahul Jacob is a former South China correspondent for the Financial Times.