ANALYSIS: Ashleigh Barty's crushing superiority - UBITENNIS
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ANALYSIS: Ashleigh Barty’s crushing superiority

The world number 1 won her third Slam title and fully dominated her opponents’ court. What’s behind her crushing supremacy?

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Ashleigh Barty
Ashleigh Barty (AUS) playing against Carla Suarez Navarro (ESP) in the first round of the Ladies' Singles on Centre Court at The Championships 2021. Held at The All England Lawn Tennis Club, Wimbledon. Day 2 Tuesday 29/06/2021. Credit: AELTC/Jed Leicester

Translated by Giulia Bosatra

Before we get into this article, here’s a list of names:

 

Chris Evert

Martina Navratilova

Hana Mandlikova

Steffi Graf

Serena Williams

Maria Sharapova

Ashleigh Barty

What do they have in common? To date, these are the only female players who can boast winning at least one Slam title on clay, grass, and hard tennis courts – I hope I’ve got that right. 

I remember hard court surfaces being introduced in the American Slam back in 1978; the Australian one followed suit in 1988. This probably prevented other major players of the early Open era (like Margaret Smith Court, Billie Jean King, or Evonne Goolagong) from being on this list. But since the court surface situation has stabilised, these statistics have become both reliable and relevant. 

In any case, with her latest Australian success, Barty has managed to join this select group of elite athletes, winning on Paris’ clay (2019), on Wimbledon’s grass (2021), and Melbourne’s fast courts (2022).

Considering how she achieved her last Slam title, we’re forced to broaden our analysis to vaster and more ambitious horizons.

Her success in the Australian Open is one thing, but we really need to start considering her role in tennis history.

The numbers from her two weeks in Melbourne are unequivocal: Barty’s path to winning the title was straightforward and clear-cut.

Seven matches, fourteen sets won, none lost.

Since her return to the courts in 2022, she’s already won two tournaments (Adelaide and Australian Open), with a total of 10 matches won in two sets, and just the one match won in three sets (4-6, 7-5, 6-2 against Coco Gauff). Zero matches lost.

This is how her journey in Melbourne unrolled: 6-0 6-1 against Tsurenko, 6-1 6-1 against Bronzetti, 6-2 6-3 against Giorgi, 6-4 6-3 against Anisimova, 6-2 6-0 with Pegula, 6-1 6-3 with Keys, 6-3 7-6(2) with Collins. 

Barty beat two Italian players and then no fewer than four American players in the last decisive rounds. 

An interesting fact: she won against exactly the same number of American players at 2019’s Roland Garros (though the match sequence was Pegula, Collins, Keys, and Anisimova), plus a fifth one (Sofia Kenin).

These numbers are undeniable evidence of a superiority that her opponents were unable to confront, if not in sporadic parts of the set – and never consistently.

The last time we witnessed this level of dominance at an Australian Open was back in 2017:  Serena Williams’ last endeavor before her maternity leave. She won 14 sets to zero and achieved her 23rd (and last, for now) Slam in her career.

Barty’s physical-technical characteristics

Barty’s superiority in 2022 is linked to her technical qualities and distinctive features.

Her serve: it isn’t given the credit it deserves, but it is exceptionally good. With such execution variety, Barty’s first serve has often helped her get out of tough break point situations and win points without rallying. Her serve will allow her to sail through a match with ease and margin over her opponent. Powerful, precise, and varied, it remains effective even when it’s executed with a slice or a kick. And there’s one thing that never ceases to surprise me: the ease in Barty’s direction-switch between her first and her second serve, and how it doesn’t impinge on her double-fault rates.

Her forehand, to which she’ll add just the right amount of topspin to secure a powerful shot and a safe trajectory over the net. At present, in my opinion, Barty’s forehand is quite simply the best one in the WTA Tour.

To these two ATP-level shots, Barty adds a one-handed backhand she usually plays with some backspin. It gives her opponents, who aren’t used to managing such low and fleeting parabolic ball trajectories, a very hard time. 

Barty’s slice usually meets the receiver’s two-handed backhand when rallying on the left diagonal. And responding to a slice with a two-handed, topspin backhand, requires both great technique and a good deal of knee bending, to get the right swing into the shot. Basically, the physical effort and the mental resilience that is needed will take their toll on the match’s balance. Barty mainly uses this shot to maneuver her opponent’s position in the court – and not to score a direct point; her sliced backhand can actually be more incisive than her forehand, due to the number of unforced errors it generates from her opponent. The slice version of her backhand outshines her reliable topspin one – which is nowhere near as good as her forehand. 

After all, Steffi Graf also had a similar shot selection (big forehand and slice backhand), and her results speak for themselves.

We can’t get the full picture of Barty’s technique by analyzing just these three shots. Her volley execution is also very good, and she’s equally capable of using solid drop-shots and several containment solutions to sustain long defence rallies without suffering.

In extreme situations, when some improvisation is needed, Barty will show off some unusual shots, like the on-the-fly forehand she hits from the baseline:

We’ve gone through her shot repertoire, but we’ve still not done her justice, Barty just has an extra something that goes beyond the mechanics of shot execution. This is how I’d define it: how naturally she plays her tennis. The command she shows in moving around the court is an example of how effortless tennis is to her. Barty looks at ease in any situation, thanks to the total control of her body movements in relation to the ball’s position. Coordination, immediate understanding of a situation, and the capability to quickly plan out the rally. Such rare qualities, which with Barty are very close to perfection.

Barty’s tactical characteristics

But at the end of the day, the gifts that I have been trying to describe here go beyond the purely physical-technical sphere and fuse into a whole which is inseparable from the tactical-strategic sphere. When Barty is on form not only does she make very few errors of execution, but she also seems to possess an infallible radar in the construction of the point.

If she finds herself facing a quality opponent, one who can bear comparison over several shots, then you’ll see a Barty that develops the exchange as it proceeds. Without forcing the individual execution, shot on shot she builds towards a situation which will enable her to close the point with a winning shot which is not in itself so very complicated. And this is because that last shot is merely the seal placed on a combination of shots that has propelled her opponent into a condition of increasing inferiority, before the “simple” concluding coup de grâce.

Often the sense of inevitability which accompanies the realization of the point is such that, at first glance, it might seem to lack drama: Barty’s tactical choices are so logically precise, so cleanly executed to seem, as I say, simple. Almost obvious.  So much so that a spectator who is not all that familiar with tennis on seeing certain points might be forgiven for wondering: Seriously? Is that all it takes to unsettle the best players in the world?

Yes, that really is “all” it takes, if you want to make a superficial assessment. Because the fact of the matter is if we embark on an analysis of each individual shot, we discover that every single one of them is executed with perfect timing, at the best possible angle, with just the right amount of spin, the best depth, taking us on to that so “obviously” winning conclusion. 

Another reason why each of these individual shots is “better” is that they often don’t even need to be placed half a centimetre from the line, because the “best” shot will also allow for a certain safety margin, and this is what distinguishes it from a super-spectacular winning shot devised at the last minute to reverse a desperate situation. But above all, each of these individual shots is the best because it’s part of a chain of shots which are perfectly balanced and developed.

If we bear in mind this particular characteristic of Barty’s, maybe we can begin to see the whole WTA tennis picture with a different eye. Basically, Barty doesn’t win simply because she has a deadly backhand slice or on account of what is – given her stature – a very impressive serve. And she doesn’t win just because she has a stellar forehand. She wins because in addition to all this she has an absolute talent for construction of the game.  A degree of talent that, if not fully understood, may well prove counterproductive when it comes to an assessment of court performance: both of her own performance and that of her opponent’s. And let’s not forget that the opponents are not all the same or lacking in tactical intelligence themselves. 

And to those tennis fans who turn up their noses at Barty I’d just like to say this:

don’t wait for Barty to retire from the game to discover that you miss that natural instinct of hers for tennis seen as development of the rally. Because at such a high level as this, we’re talking about a simply extraordinary gift, even if maybe less obvious and less sensational than other elements of tennis.

All perfect, then? Well, if I really wanted to nitpick about her tactical qualities, I might say this: maybe on occasion Barty’s construction of the point tends to proceed with little regard for the characteristics of the player she has in front of her. Maybe in certain situations, she would be better off carrying on working, or attacking the weak side of her opponent, even when the tennis manual, dealing with that situation in the abstract, would dictate that she should vary things and move over to her other side. 

But naturally there’s no reason to assume this sensation of mine is right; and at any rate it’s never easy for a player to find the perfect balance between two aims that can diverge: on the one hand the desire to give full rein to one’s own characteristics, on the other trying to bring out the worst play in one’s opponent. 

Barty’s mental characteristics

If we reflect on her performance in recent seasons, that is since she became the world’s number one, I would say that her weakness lies in her mental and competitive characteristics. Perhaps because she is such a naturally good player of tennis that in order for her to give full expression to her abilities she doesn’t actually need to add the spice of struggle to the match. She certainly isn’t a hypercompetitive player like, for example, Angelique Kerber or, staying with the more current Australian matches: Danielle Collins.

On the contrary, most of Barty’s recent defeats were caused by sudden mental black-outs that led to such a drastic decline in her play to seem virtually inexplicable. 

On a small scale, we saw this in the last Australian Open as well. Let’s run through all seven of the rounds she faced. In every match in the first set, when the game had not yet fully taken off, Barty approached perfection: not only did she win all of these sets but not once, that’s right, never, did she lose her serve. The odd sign of flagging did, however, surface during the second set of some of the matches when the classic extra-technical factors that characterize a profoundly mental game like tennis came into play.

Barty lost her serve for the first time (in the whole tournament) at the opening of the second set against Anisimova, and twice in the second set of the final against Collins, when, that is, she was a mere step away from winning the title. The situation was similar in both matches: facing her was an adversary at a disadvantage, with less and less to lose, and therefore strengthened by the courage of she who needs to call on every resource to avoid elimination. In Barty, on the other hand, we witnessed the classic faltering of she whose play is affected at glimpsing a final within her grasp, the typical tightening up.

On that occasion in the final against Collins, trailing by 1-5 the set seemed at that point to be compromised. But instead of giving it up for lost and concentrating on the third set, Barty attempted nonetheless to even things up. And she did so winning four games in a row, bringing the score to 5-5. After which she stretched things out to a tie-break, which she promptly took with an unequivocal 7-2 (final score 6-3, 7-6).  

In short, a few cracks in her mental state could be detected in that last victory. Last year, however, Barty was not always able to cut short the negative moments that occurred when the match was seemingly in her hands. In particular in the two hard-court Slams of 2021. Both at the Australian Open against Muchova and at the US Open against Rogers she met defeat in a similar way – brought on by a sudden drop in performance just when the job seemed done.

In Melbourne all it took was the Medical Time Out requested by Muchova to overturn the situation leading to the final 1-6, 6-3, 6-2. In New York it was Rogers’ change in tactics (which took the form of defensive moonballs) when Barty was leading 2-6, 6-1, 5-2 that set Barty’s arm into an irremediable tremble till the decisive tiebreak defeat.

Despite these fruitless interludes, last year Barty won Wimbledon and four other important tournaments (Yarra Valley Classic, Miami, Stuttgart, Cincinnati). And taking stock, we mustn’t forget that out of the eight season’s defeats two were down to her pulling out due to arm problems: in Rome against Gauff and at the Roland Garros against Linette.

EDITOR’S NOTE: This article was written before Barty announced her retirement

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It’s Unfair, Rafa Is Too Good In Roland Garros Final

James Beck reflects on Nadal’s latest triumph at Roland Garros.

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Rafael Nadal - Roland Garros 2022 (foto Roberto Dell'Olivo)

This one was almost unfair.

 

It was like Rafa Nadal giving lessons to one of his former students at the Nadal academy back home in Mallorca.

When this French Open men’s singles final was over in less than two hours and a half, Rafa celebrated, of course. But he didn’t even execute his usual championship ritual on Court Philippe Chatrier of falling on his back on the red clay all sprawled out.

This one was that easy for the 36-year-old Spanish left-hander. He yielded only six games.

 It certainly didn’t have the characteristics of his many battles at Roland Garros with Novak Djokovic and Roger Federer.

It must have been a bit shocking to the packed house of mostly Rafa fans.

RAFA DIDN’T MISS ‘HIS SHOT’ OFTEN

Nadal didn’t miss many of his patented shots such as his famed reverse cross-court forehand. He was awesome at times. Young 23-year-old Casper Ruud must have realized that by the middle of the second set when Rafa started on his amazing 11-game winning streak to finish off a 6-3, 6-3, 6-0 victory.

Ruud is good. The Norway native will win his share of ATP titles, but probably not many Grand Slam titles. If any, at least until Rafa goes away to a retirement, certainly on his island of Mallorca.

Rafa already has his own statue on the grounds of Roland Garros. Perhaps, Mallorca should be renamed Rafa Island.

RUUD COULDN’T HANDLE RAFA’S PRESSURE

Ruud displayed a great forehand at times to an open court. But when Rafa applied his usual pressure to the corners Ruud’s forehand often  went haywire.

Rafa’s domination started to show in the third set as Ruud stopped chasing Nadal’s wicked reverse cross-court forehands. 

Ruud simply surrendered the last three games while Nadal yielded only three points. Nadal finished it off with a sizzling backhand down the line. In the end, nice guy, good sport and former student Ruud could only congratulate Rafa.

JOHNNY MAC: RAFA ‘INSANELY GOOD’

The great John McEnroe even called Nadal’s overall perfection “insanely good.”

If Iga Swiatek’s 6-1, 6-3 win in Saturday’s women’s final over young Coco Gauff was a mismatch,  Iga’s tennis idol staged a complete domination of Ruud a day later.

It appears that the only thing that can slow Rafa down is his nearly always sore left foot, not his age. He won his first French Open final 17 years ago.

For Nadal to win a 22nd Grand Slam title to take a 22-20-20 lead over his friends and rivals Djokovic and Federer is mind-boggling, but not as virtually unbelievable as winning a 14th  French Open title.

James Beck was the 2003 winner of the USTA National Media Award for print media. A 1995 MBA graduate of The Citadel, he can be reached at Jamesbecktennis@gmail.com. 

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At The French Open Rafa and Novak Lived Up To A Battle For The Ages

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Rafael Nadal (photo @RolandGarros)

Rafa Nadal is simply amazing.

 

His herd of fans couldn’t have been more pleased with their hero on this day just hours from his 36th birthday. He was never better, his patented reverse  cross-court forehand a marvel for the ages and his serve never more accurate.

The presence of his long-time friend and rival on the Court Philippe Chatrier that he loves so much made Nadal’s victory over Novak Djokovic even more special. The 59th meeting between these two warriors was a match for the ages, marvelous play by both players. Some games seemed to go on forever, with these two legends of the game dueling for every point for nearly four hours in a match that started in May and ended in June.

NADAL HAS NEVER PLAYED BETTER

The 6-2, 4-6, 6-2, 7-6 (4) victory sends Nadal into his birthday on Friday to face Alexander Zverev for a spot in Sunday’s final of the French Open. Win or lose now, Rafa will remain the all-time leader in Grand Slam singles titles until at least Wimbledon due to his current 21-20-20 edge over Djokovic and Roger Federer.

Nadal played like he could go on forever playing his game, but he is quick to remind that his career could end at any time. The always painful left foot remains in his mind.

But the Spanish left-hander has never played better than when he overcame a 5-2 deficit against Djokovic in the fourth set. Nadal sparkled with energy, easily holding service, then fighting off two set points with true grit, holding easily to get back to 5-5 and then holding serve at love for 6-6.

A 6-1 TIEBREAKER DEFICIT TOO MUCH FOR EVEN NOVAK

The tiebreaker belonged to Rafa for six of the first seven points. That was too tough a task for even Novak to overcome.

Rafa’s podiatrist must have felt relieved at least for now. If Rafa was in pain, he didn’t show it for the first time in quite awhile.

If Nadal could pull off the feat of taming the big game and serving accuracy Zverev displayed while conquering potential whiz kid Carlos Alcaraz, and then taking out whoever is left in the battle between Denmark’s young Holger Rune, Croatia’s veteran Marin Cilic, Norway’s Casper Ruud and Russian Andrey Rublev, Nadal might own a nearly unbeatable lead with 22 Grand Slam titles.

James Beck was the 2003 winner of the USTA National Media Award for print media. A 1995 MBA graduate of The Citadel, he can be reached at Jamesbecktennis@gmail.com. 

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The Next Group Of Hopefuls To Replace The ‘Great Trio’ May Be Beaten Out By Youth

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Carlos Alcaraz - Roland Garros 2022 (photo Roberto Dell'Olivo)

What is it with this supposedly great crop of newer and younger players groomed to take the places of the “Great Trio” of  Roger Federer, Rafa Nadal and Novak Djokovic at the top of the men’s game?

 

Only Daniil Medvedev and Dominic Thiem have won Grand Slam titles, both at the U.S. Open. And that’s about it. Medvedev just fell to Marin Cilic in the French Open round of 16.

Who?

You remember the 33-year-old hard-hitting Croatian who won the 2014 U.S. Open. Cilic had hardly been heard from since the 2018 Australian Open where he was runner-up . . . until  Monday when he needed just 45 minutes to conquer Medvedev.

THIEM JUST ANOTHER PLAYER THESE DAYS

Thiem? He looked like the real deal in 2020 when he won the U.S. Open. The Austrian is now 28 years old and an injured right wrist in 2021 has pushed Thiem far down the ATP rankings.

Then, there was the next presumed superstar: Stefanos Tsitsipas. The aggressive potential superstar came up empty on Monday against a virtually unknown teenager. Holger Rune was fantastic in his four-set domination of Tsitsipas.

The just-turned 19-year-old Rune appears to have it all: speed, quickness, power and touch. A 40th ranking isn’t too bad for a teen-ager, especially when it will zoom higher as the result of his advancement to a Grand Slam quarterfinal.

ARE MEDVEDEV, THIEM AND TSITSIPAS REALLY THAT GREAT?

Maybe Medvedev, Thiem and Tsitsipas aren’t really as good as they once appeared to be. They are certainly not in the category of all-time greats. They have had their chances to become household words.

Maybe the members of this group weren’t meant to be the superstars to replace Federer, Nadal and Djokovic as fan favorites.

Maybe, it’s the next group of younger players, even teenagers. Yes, it appears that Carlos Alcaraz may outshine the likes of Thiem, Medvedev and Tsitsipas in the next few years.

MAKE WAY FOR CARLOS ALCARAZ?

It just happens the 19-year-old Carlos Alcaraz may become one of the eventual replacements for Federer, Nadal and Djokovic.

Carlos Alcaraz is one week younger than Rune.

Alexander Zverev might have been ahead of the others if he hadn’t blown so many chances for stardom the last few years. Still, he is the Olympic champion and probably has more potential than Thiem, Medvedev or Tsitsipas.

A HERD OF PLAYERS WAITING TO MAKE THEIR MARKS

There is a herd of virtually unknown players waiting to make their mark. For instance, take Casper Ruud, 20-year-old Jannik Skinner and Matteo Berrettini. They have the potential to beat anyone.

But Alcaraz and Rune look like the best of the new young guns of tennis.

Of course, it really doesn’t matter who wins the Nadal-Djokovic quarterfinal showdown in Paris. They are two of the greatest players ever. Nothing is going to change that, not in Paris or anywhere else. Their place in history is written in stone, alongside Federer.

WOMEN’S GAME UNPREDICTABLE

The women’s game is even more unpredictable than the men’s game. One reason is because the WTA no longer has superstars the likes of Venus and Serena Williams, and Ashleigh Barty.

Top-ranked Iga Swiatek looked ready to take over the women’s game with her long string of consecutive wins. But in the last two rounds of the French Open, Swiatek has looked like just another good player at times.

That may be due to the fact that the Polish sensation is going for her second French Open title while taking a 31-match winning streak into the quarterfinals. But it happened in the third round against 95th-ranked Danka Kovinic and then again Monday in round of 16 against 74th-ranked Qinwen Zheng.

Swiatek suddenly looked very average, but then bounced back to take both matches in the cool weather once she put on a white jacket in each match. She aroused her game early enough to avoid losing a set against Kovinic, but not against Zheng.

PEGULA MAY TEST SWIATEK

Swiatek now will face newlywed Jessie Pegula in the quarterfinals. Pegula is now playing the best tennis of her career and has rocketed to No. 11 in the world. Like Swiatek, Pegula is a fighter. She won’t go down easily and may be Swiatek’s toughest test remaining in Paris.

The 28-year-old Pegula called Charleston her home while she trained for a couple of years at the then Family Circle Cup complex, which is now the home of the Credit One Charleston Open stop on the WTA Tour. Pegula was married in last October at the famed Biltmore Estate in Asheville, N.C.

Pegula also is having doubles success in Paris. She teamed with Coco Gauff to reach the third round in doubles, hoping for a victory there to advance to the doubles quarterfinals as well.

James Beck was the 2003 winner of the USTA National Media Award for print media. A 1995 MBA graduate of The Citadel, he can be reached at Jamesbecktennis@gmail.com. 

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