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?
Translated by Giulia Bosatra
Before we get into this article, here’s a list of names:
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
Iga Swiatek’s Ultimate Reflection: From Rome Heartbreak To Breakthrough Triumph
Iga Swiatek ultimate reflection has taught us the physiological demands of being an athlete.
Iga Swiatek’s life has changed over the last few years and now the world number one reflects on the defeat that defined the success that followed over the last few years.
Picture the scene. It was the 15th of September, 2020. The world was continuing to go through a traumatic time with the COVID-19 Pandemic six months in and tennis had just restarted a few months earlier in America.
A young 19 year-old called Iga Swiatek had just burst onto the scene having dominated the ITF tour and also conquered Grand Slam juniors. The Pole had won Roland Garros doubles with Caty McNally and followed that up by winning Wimbledon in singles.
Swiatek’s transition to the main tour was taken to like a duck to water as she reached her first final in Lugano in 2019 in April. That was followed by a decent showing at Roland Garros, reaching the last 16 before being demolished by former champion Simona Halep.
However at a young age, Swiatek had showed she can compete with the very best and more success was predicted for the Pole in the future.
Although nobody would predict was about to follow over the next few years with Swiatek eventually winning two Roland Garros titles and becoming one of the most dominant world number one’s in recent history.
Before we get to tennis domination, Swiatek had to go through what every athlete has to go to and that’s defeat.
It was in the Italian capital right before Swiatek’s first Grand Slam title in 2020 that the Pole suffered a massive setback as she would lose the most significant match in her career.
On the 15th of September 2020, Iga Swiatek went out in the first round to Arantxa Rus 7-6(5) 6-3.
A shocking defeat for Swiatek, who had high expectations for Rome and was looking to build some last minute momentum before her favourite Grand Slam of the year.
It was a career defining defeat for Swiatek though as she would win Roland Garros a few weeks later, claiming her first of three Grand Slam singles titles so far.
Three years later, Swiatek returned to Rome as the world number one and as defending champion ahead of her second Roland Garros title defence coming up in Paris.
In the Italian capital, Swiatek gave the ultimate reflection of that defeat to Rus that changed her career:
“Well, it wasn’t easy honestly. It was pretty tricky part of my career. I mean, I just started, but career,” Swiatek reflected on after her 6-0 6-0 demolition of Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova.
“Well, this match, I remember it like a pretty traumatic one. She played, like, high balls. It really worked here on this slow surface. I couldn’t manage that properly. I was making a lot of mistakes. I didn’t feel really well.
“Then I remember we had some serious talks with the team on what to change and how to, like, reset, what I should do to feel a little bit better. I came home to practice, and that period of time wasn’t, like, easy at all. I also probably had some expectations because it was clay and I knew that I can do better. Yeah, it was really, really hard.
“Even when I came on Roland Garros, I remember just being on the Jean Bouin before the tournament, practicing there. I literally had the talk with Daria if it makes sense to continue everything because I felt so bad. I felt like, I don’t know, my expectations were just pretty high. I felt really bad on court. Always tense and stressed, even when I was practicing.
“I was able to kind of just really, really reset and let it go. I remember I was practicing I think with Kiki Mladenovic. We made a bet, me and Daria, if I’m finally going to have one practice that is going to be without any drama. I don’t remember what’s bet was for, but I remember it was about not having drama on practice, just playing one practice that is going to be calmer than most of my practices, but this is the goal.
“Since then, I managed on this tournament to kind of let everything go. Honestly, when I played my first rounds in Roland Garros 2020, I thought I played so bad that I can’t go lower, so I’m just going to play and see how it goes. Then I won couple of matches. I was like, Okay, what’s going on? Why am I suddenly winning?
“I managed to keep that till the end of the tournament. That’s why my win last year on Roland Garros felt much more special, because I felt like I’m in the right place. In 2020 it all felt like it’s like a big coincidence that I’m even here in the final of Roland Garros, for example. It was a tough time for me.
“Looking overall, I wouldn’t say that my 2020 season was good. I would say I only played well on Roland Garros. I don’t even know why, so… I’m pretty happy that I, like, worked through that experience and actually understood that lowering expectations, just letting everything go, was honestly the key. I tried to repeat that throughout all these years.”
Swiatek’s answer to a question about a defeat that defined her career shows her maturity and world-class talent on and off the court.
A teenager to identify her vulnerabilities and weaknesses is not easy let alone bringing people in to work on solutions.
Swiatek’s Roland Garros victory in 2020 was the start of a few years of success but almost ended in dramatic fashion having gone through stress throughout the tournament.
However it was a blessing in disguise as the Pole was able to identify long-term solutions for problems that relate to stress for the future as well as creating an environment that proves that she can still win the big tournaments.
Now Swiatek is stronger mentally than she ever has been, who knows if she’ll win a fourth Grand Slam title in Paris this year but the formula has been set for future success.
Swiatek’s ultimate reflection has taught us that the Pole is well on course to dominate the sport and create a legacy for many other young athletes on how to diagnose psychological problems.
The sorrows of the young Sinner
How strong is Jannik Sinner really? How the renaissance of Italian tennis deflated in Rome…
By Ubaldo Scanagatta
What could have been a memorable fortnight in Rome, despite some questionable scheduling and court quality, was hampered not only by the dire weather but also by the Italian players, who didn’t live up to the expectations. For the first time since 2019 no Italian, man or woman, featured in the quarterfinals.
Jannik Sinner had reached the quarter finals one year ago, where he was defeated by Tsitsipas (76 62). In 2021 Lorenzo Sonego had an outstanding run to the semifinals, putting away Thiem and Rublev, and was only halted by Djokovic. Matteo Berrettini made it to the quarterfinals in 2020, where he lost to Ruud.
Have we been overly trumpeting a Renaissance of Italian tennis in these years?
If we delve into the matter, we cannot really blame Matteo Berrettini for missing Internazionali BNL d’Italia two times in a row because of an endless string of injuries, neither can we criticize Lorenzo Sonego and Lorenzo Musetti for losing in straight sets against Stefanos Tsitsipas, No. 5 in the world and one of the best clay specialists, a two-time winner in Montecarlo, finalist in Roland Garros 2021 and Rome 2022. And Marco Cecchinato, while brushing away Bautista Agut, flashed glimmers of his heyday, namely 2018-19 when he reached the semifinals in Paris and a peak ranking at No.16.
Sonego even had two setpoints in the second set, which he didn’t play so brilliantly. Musetti had snatched a break in the second set but let the Greek back in before fatally dropping serve in the 12th game, just like in the first set. When the points get tight, the gap between the top players and the others suddenly widens.
There is no doubt that the great disappointment came when Jannik Sinner unexpectedly lost to Francisco Cerundolo. Throughout his young career the Argentinian had already beaten three top ten players (Ruud, Rublev and Auger-Aliassime) and is a tough hurdle to clear on clay, but the way he disposed of Sinner in the last two sets with a double 62 was discomforting.
A great disappointment because expectations were immense, considering that in the three Masters 1000 he played this year he had reached one final (Miami) and two semifinals (Indian Wells and Montecarlo).
Djokovic and Alcaraz, were the first two favourites for the title. But Sinner was rated as a third pick. And once Alcaraz and Djokovic were most unexpectedly ousted from the tournament he appeared as a likely winner. Also because Tsitispas hadn’t got off to brilliant start of clay season; Ruud had been struggling even more and Medvedev had never won a match in this previous four participations in Rome.
So is Sinner really as strong as here in Italy we say he is? Only Einstein could answer: it’s all relative.
Of course he’s a strong player. And it’s likely he’s going to stay in the top 10 for a long time. Much longer than Panatta, Barazzutti and Fognini did. Probably also than Berrettini, who has already been in the top ten longer than the three I mentioned, though helped by favourable circumstances, like the frozen rankings due to Covid.
How strong is he? Well, it depends on who we compare him with. If we look at his birth certificate, we cannot but think of Carlitos Alcaraz and Holger Rune.
Well, perhaps we have a little exaggerated, spurred by patriotism and craving for a true Italian champion, who has been missing since Panatta. Because the results achieved by Alcaraz, a Major and 4 Masters 1000, as well as No. 1 of the ATP ranking are quite different. It’s true that Jannik has beaten him on 3 occasions out of 6, at Wimbledon, Umag and Miami, not to mention the epic match at the US Open when he lost in 5 sets after having a match point. But this simply means that Alcaraz suffers his game, his powerful hitting from the baseline. In this sense there’s not such a huge gap, but many other aspects have to be taken into account.
Which are Jannik’s limits, compared with the current No. 1 in the world? Alcaraz is a much more complete player in terms of touch and finesse, natural gameplay fluidity, explosiveness of shots, physical strength, athleticism and variety of recovery skills and, therefore, unpredictability, tactical ductility, from serve and volley which he sometimes executes persistently, as he did against Medvedev, never looking like a fish out of water at the net) to marathon runner resilience. He can mix up powerful serves and kick serves, continuously varying angles and spin. His dropshots are completely natural. Jannik’s tennis, instead, often gives the impression of being robotic, even though he has made great progress in the last year.
I have often said that Jannik Sinner resembles Ivan Lendl, because Ivan’s philosophy was centred on work, work, and work, but he definitely wasn’t endowed with the same natural talent as John McEnroe. Yet he won more than McEnroe and this must be the hope, the goal of Sinner and his team.
Rune is a much more natural talent than Jannik. And it’s not only his mentor who says this. He’s more complete, he serves better, he lands drop shots with greater ease, he can alternate powerful groundstrokes and changes of pace…like Big Cat Mecir. He plays a clever tennis, instinctive at times, but also well-reasoned.
He has already won a Masters 1000, and he’s ahead of Jannik. He’s got a big personality, though sometimes he comes up with unpleasant behaviour on court. He quite reminds me of McEnroe. People just would wait for Mac to meltdown. It will be the same with Rune. The way he put away Djokovic, in spite of the match interruption due to rain which probably cost him the second set, proves his mental qualities. He had displayed the same qualities when he beat Sinner in Montecarlo.
He has achieved goals which Jannik has just got close to. Jannik seems to be often hampered by injuries. He’s not a natural tennis player, he’s not a natural athlete. But his desire to succeed is so impressive that he will overcome these shortcomings.
Alcaraz lost to Marozsan, but before losing he tried everything. He snatched a 4-1 lead in the tiebreak of the second set, which he ended up losing 7-4, because he too is young and can suddenly have lapses. But he battled away and tried to change tactics, whereas Jannik seemed flat and just gave in, without finding the strength to react and fight back.
Sinner is young too, and sooner or later he’s going to get through these situations. But he has to find his way. Many are the features of his game he has to work on: his serve, his volleys. His ultimate breakthrough is still to come.
Translated by Kingsley Elliot Kaye
The Madrid Open Men’s Final Was Three Sets Of Sheer Excitement
Winning is the ultimate key for Carlos Alcaraz or any tennis player.
Three sets in a non-major match just make winning more exciting for everyone other than the loser, even though Jan-Lennard Struff can take solace this time. After all, he was just a lowly “Lucky Loser.”
Struff actually took Alcaraz out of his game all the way until the Spanish 20-year-old finally came up with back-to-back love service games to secure a long 6-4, 3-6, 6-3 victory on Sunday in Madrid.
BREATHING EASILY DIDN’T COME EARLY FOR ALCARAZ
It was only then that Alcaraz could breathe easily against Struff’s amazing power and ability to win key points at the net.
Struff actually out-Alcarazed his foe until the end appeared to be in sight. The big German seemed to have an answer for everything Alcaraz could come up with until those last two service holds by the newest adult member of tennis greatness.
Alcaraz simply showed the packed house his true greatness and will to win. The young man was the true gem in the Madrid ATP Masters 1000 event.
ALL THE WAY WITH A BROAD SMILE
Alcaraz appeared to do it all with a broad smile on his young face. Three sets just made it more exciting for everyone other than the loser.
Alcaraz seems to enjoy the extra practice time when he needs it. And he needed it to turn back a 33-year-old opponent who played his heart out until the end.
He was outhit and outplayed, but when it came time to end things, Alcaraz was ready for the challenge.
ALCARAZ DID WHAT HE DOES BEST
Struff didn’t do anything really wrong. Alcaraz just did what he does best. Win.
The usual one-sided wins by Alcaraz, of course, are supreme fun for his growing number of fans. But at times like Sunday, Alcaraz appears to need to keep the pressure on until the clutch time comes. Otherwise, the fans might start celebrating too early.
After all, they already are in Rafa Heaven. What are the fans supposed to do if their two greats, Alcaraz and Rafa Nadal, have a showdown in Paris?
James Beck was the 2003 winner of the USTA National Media Award. A 1995 MBA graduate of The Citadel, he can be reached at Jamesbecktennis@gmail.com.
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