By Konrad Marshall
You’ve probably seen the moment already but look below. View it again. The return of serve went wide, and all of Australia beamed, and of course Ash Barty did too, before smashing the ball skyward. She had done it. Won her 12th straight match. Won the Birmingham Classic. Achieved the No. 1 ranking in the world. When she beat her doubles partner, Julia Goerges (6-3, 7-5), on Sunday, June 23, 2019, she became only the second Australian woman to achieve the ranking, after Indigenous champion and mentor Evonne Goolagong Cawley, who completed the feat all the way back in 1976.
Chris Evert, 18-time grand slam champion, said at the time that Barty, the sublimely skilled Queenslander, is “living proof that variety and finesse have a place in modern tennis, alongside power”. Indeed that stunning result – on the back of her maiden Grand Slam victory in the French Open that same year – saw Barty ascend to a lofty perch that she has held now for almost two years, as a perrenial threat and top seeded talent in any tournament she enters. She has shown as much again this month, in the Australian Open, and her coach, Craig Tyzzer, says she has the game to keep her at the top for a long time. But what is it – exactly – that makes her so special?
It starts with her kick serve. Also known as "the hopper", the idea is to get the ball to bounce up and out of an opponent's hitting zone (and comfort zone). "Most players like to get the ball at hip height but when you do a kick serve you're basically putting more rotations on the ball, so it jumps quickly off the court and often changes direction," says Tyzzer. "Not a lot of girls hit kick serves, so it's a definite point of difference."
This one's a favourite. Many women – and men – look for power and control by using only a double-handed backhand. But it means when they're forced to stretch and play the shot one-handed, they often produce weak, pushing returns. Barty breaks with convention by favouring a single slice backhand, meaning she gets penetration, plus spin. Watch the ball land: it moves notably and unpredictably, changing the pace of the rally.
Next, there's her forehand. No one succeeds in tennis without power across the body and Barty's right is a definite weapon. She generates heavy topspin, and the ball moves with good pace through the court. She also doesn't stand back like so many others, hitting only ropey, hydraulic forehands from the baseline. "Ash adapts to who she's playing and moves the ball around – pinpointing her shots," says Tyzzer. "It's won her lots of her matches."
A tool we're seeing Barty deploy more and more successfully over the past year or so is one that delights all tennis fans: the drop shot. It's bold, and risky, but has the potential to change the entire complexion of a point. Watch the example above – she caresses the ball from the back of the court, sending it just over the net, and it completely dies after the bounce. It takes confidence to attempt, but the result is almost unplayable.
Volleys are of course another potent weapon in the Barty arsenal. The thing is, she's a strong and constant doubles player, which pays off in singles because of her willingness to come to the net. She has soft hands and quick reflexes, honed over a long time. "She comes in at any opportunity for a short ball," says Tyzzer. "And it's a real point of difference in all forms of tennis, because not many guys do it either."
Putting all this together isn't easy, but Barty has what's called a complete "all court" game. She reacts fast, changes grip swiftly, and dwells on her footwork and proactive movement. She needs to. Her game was built on variety, pushed by junior coach Jim Joyce: "You force a chip-slice backhand, then a quick switch to a volley – forcing her to practise her transition – and she would nail it. You can try those things with all girls, but they can't all do it."
To be as good as Ashleigh Barty, of course, you need some X-factor, creativity and flair. And she does have tricks. Quite a few. Former world number eight Alicia Molik first saw Barty when she was 10, and now sees her manufacture something incredible – a spectacle, or two, or three – in almost every match and practice session. "If you haven't watched Ash before, you need to go and buy a ticket," she says. "I'm serious. You really need to see her play."
The serve, the slice, the smash, the speed, the sense, the style – none of it means anything without grit. Barty is famous for her love of the challenge, the one-on-one – the search for the chink in the armour that will lance the girl at the other end of the court, remembering that it's not over until she's shaking hands at the net. "Every player in the world knows what my weapons are," she says. "It's about using them better than your opponent."
Additional footage: WTA, Roland-Garros, Channel Nine, Tennis Australia.
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