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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Roland Garros 2024: Has Crowd Noise Reached Boiling Point Or Is It Hyperbole?

Daniil Medvedev was one of the players who commented on the debate surrounding the Roland Garros crowd.

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Roland Garros has often been a place with energetic crowds that have been involved in plenty of controversial moments but has it reached boiling point this year?

The Roland Garros have been involved in lots of heated moments over the years whether it’s been finals involving Novak Djokovic, whether it’s been that epic Garbine Muguruza against Kristina Mladenovic clash or any Alize Cornet or Gael Monfils match.

The French crowd isn’t afraid to show its true feelings as it’s been one of the most passionate atmosphere’s in the world.

However there has been debate in the past as to whether the crowd has been bordering on the edge of being disrespectful.

That debate has boiled over at this year’s event as it all started when David Goffin claimed the crowd on Court 14 spat gum in his direction during his five set win over Giovanni Mpetshi Perricard.

Furthermore Iga Swiatek was pleading with the crowd in her on-court interview to remain silent during the point as they were seen shouting during a volley.

This kind of behaviour from the crowd as well as the retaliation from the players has seen tournament director Amelie Mauresmo see stricter rules being enforced by security and umpires on both sides.

So has this issue reached boiling point or is this an over exaggeration? Well here is what some of the players think.

Paula Badosa

“I think she (Swiatek) cannot complain, because I played Court 8 and 9 and you can hear everything. Like, I can hear Suzanne Lenglen, Philippe Chatrier, Court 6, 7 during the points.

“I think she’s very lucky she can play all the time on Philippe Chatrier and she’s okay with that. But I don’t mind. As I said, I played in small courts these days, and I was hearing so much noise. In that moment, I’m just so focused on myself and on my match that it doesn’t really bother me.

“Honestly, I like when the fans cheer and all this. I think I get pumped. Look, we had a very tough situation years ago when we were playing without fans with the COVID situation, so now, for me, I’m so happy they’re back and I think they’re very important for our sport.”

Grigor Dimitrov

“I think us as tennis players we’re very particular with certain things, and I always say one is the background. For example, let’s say if it’s too bright or if you have, let’s say, big letters, whatever it is, it’s a bit more difficult.

“Also, with the crowd, if you see the crowd moving in the back, it’s very, very tough because we are so focused on the ball. When we see that is moving, automatically your eye is catching that. On the movement part, I’m all for being absolutely still.

“Now, with the sound, there’s not much, I guess, we can do. I think either/or I’m very neutral on that, to be honest. I could play, I don’t know, with music on and all that. Of course, I prefer when everything is, like, a little bit more tame, so to speak, but this is a little bit out of our control.”

Daniil Medvedev

“I think it’s very tough, because there are two ways. So right now, in a way, there are, like, the kind of, I would say, unofficial rule — or actually an official rule, don’t interrupt players before second serve and when they’re ready to serve and during the point. Personally, I like it. Because I think, I don’t know if there are other sports than tennis and golf that have it, but because it’s so technical and, like, I would say every millimeter of a movement you change, the ball is going to go different side.

“So, you know, if someone screams in your ear, your serve, you could double fault. That’s as easy as that. That’s not good. At the other side, if there would be no this rule and it would be allowed all the time, I think we would get used to it. Now what happens is that 95% of matches, tournaments, it’s quiet. And then when suddenly you come to Roland Garros and it’s not, it disturbs you, and it’s a Grand Slam so you get more stress and it’s not easy.

“Yeah, I think playing French in Roland Garros is not easy. That’s for sure. I think a lot of players experience it. I would say that in US Open and Wimbledon is not the same. Australia can be tough. I played Thanasi once there on the small court. It was, whew, brutal. Yeah, I think, you know, it’s a tough question. I think as I just responded, it’s good to have energy between points, but then when you’re ready to serve, it’s okay, let’s finish it and let’s play tennis. Same before first and second serve. And then when there is a changeover, when there is between points, go unleash yourself fully, it’s okay.

“But again, when you’re already bouncing the ball, you want to get ready for the serve, if it would be 10 years we would be playing loud, we would not care. But for the moment it’s not like this so when you get ready for serve, you want to toss the ball, then suddenly ten people continue screaming, the serves are not easy, so for the moment, let’s try to be quiet.”

Conclusion

In conclusion, this year’s crowd has been more volatile and aggressive then seen in previous years which is a big problem for player safety.

However on a whole the crowd is also more passionate and entertaining which makes for a quality product.

As long as the crowd can control their temperament then most of the incidents are nothing but hyperbole and something the players need to get used to in a hostile Parisian environment.

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Steve Flink: The 2024 Italian Open Was Filled with Surprises

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In sweeping majestically to his sixth career Masters 1000 title along with a second crown at the Italian Open in Rome, Germany’s Sascha Zverev put on one of the most self assured performances of his career to cast aside the Chilean Nicolas Jarry 6-4, 7-5 in the final. By virtue of securing his 22nd career ATP Tour title and his first of 2024, Zverev has moved from No. 5 up to No. 4 in the world. That could be crucial to his cause when he moves on to Roland Garros as the French Open favorite in the eyes of some experts.

Zverev is long overdue to win a major title for the first time in his storied career. Not only has he won those six tournaments at the elite 1000 level, but twice— in 2018 and 2021—he has triumphed at the prestigious, year end ATP Finals reserved solely for the top eight players in the world. This triumph on the red clay of Rome is a serious step forward for the 27-year-old who has demonstrably been as prodigious on clay as he is on hard courts.

Seldom if ever have I seen a more supreme display of serving in a final round skirmish on clay than what Zverev displayed against Jarry on this occasion. He never faced a break point and was not even pushed to deuce. Altogether, Zverev took 44 of his 49 service points across the two sets in his eleven service games. He won 20 of 21 points on his deadly delivery in the first set and 24 of 28 in the second. He poured in 80% of his first serves and managed half a dozen aces and countless service winners. His power, precision and directional deception was extraordinary.

Although the scoreline in this confrontation looks somewhat close, that was not the case at all. Jarry was thoroughly outplayed by Zverev from the backcourt, and despite some stellar serving of his own sporadically, he could not maintain a sufficiently high level. He did manage to win 78% of his first serve points, but Jarry was down at 35% on second serve points won. In the final analysis, this was a final round appointment that was ultimately a showcase for the greatness of Zverev more than anything else. Jarry was too often akin to a spectator at his own match as Zverev clinically took him apart.

Zverev and Jarry arrived in the final contrastingly. The German’s journey to the title round was relatively straightforward. After a first round bye, he handled world No. 70 Aleksandar Vukic. Zverev dismissed the Australian 6-0, 6-4. The No. 3 seed next accounted for Italy’s Luciano Darderi 7-6 (3), 6-2. In the round of 16, Zverev comfortably disposed of Portugal’s Nuno Borges, ousting the world No. 53 by scores of 6-2, 7-5. Perhaps Zverev’s finest match prior to the final was a 6-4, 6-3 quarterfinal dissection of Taylor Fritz, a much improved player on clay this season. Zverev did not face a break point in taking apart the 26-year-old 6-4, 6-3 with almost regal authority from the backcourt.

Only in the penultimate round was Zverev stretched to his limits. Confronting the gifted Alejandro Tabilo of Chile, he was outplayed decidedly in the first set against the left-hander. The second set of their semifinal was on serve all the way, and the outcome was settled in a tie-break. With Tabilo apprehensive because he was on the verge of reaching the most important final of his career, Zverev was locked in. After commencing that sequence with a double fault, Zverev fell behind 0-2 but hardly put a foot out of line thereafter.

He did not miss a first serve after the double fault and his ground game was unerring. Zverev took that tie-break deservedly 7-4, and never looked back, winning 16 of 19 service points, breaking an imploding Tabilo twice, and coming through 1-6, 7-6 (4), 6-2. Zverev displayed considerable poise under pressure late in the second set to move past a man who had produced a startling third round upset of top seeded Novak Djokovic.

As for Jarry, the dynamic Chilean had a first round bye as well, and then advanced 6-2, 7-6 (6) over the Italian Matteo Arnaldi. Taking on another Italian in the third round, Jarry survived an arduous duel with Stefano Napolitano 6-2, 4-6, 6-4. He then cast aside the Frenchman Alexandre Muller 7-5, 6-3.

Around the corner, trouble loomed. Jarry had to fight ferociously to defeat No. 6 seed Stefanos Tsitsipas, who had by then established himself in the eyes of most astute observers as the tournament favorite. Tsitsipas has been revitalized since securing a third crown in Monte Carlo several in April. And in his round of 16 encounter, the Greek competitor had looked nothing less than stupendous in routing the Australian Alex de Minaur 6-1, 6-2.

Unsurprisingly, Tsitsipas seemed in command against Jarry in their stirring quarterfinal. He won the first set and had two big openings in the second. Jarry served at 3-3, 0-40. Tsitsipas missed a lob off the backhand by inches on the first break point before Jarry unleashed an ace followed by a service winner. The Chilean climbed out of that corner and got the hold. Then, at 5-5, Tsitsipas reached double break point at 15-40 but once more he was unable to convert. He got a bad bounce on the first break point that caused him to miss a forehand from mid-court. On the second, Jarry’s forehand down the line was simply too good.

Now serving at 5-6, Tsitsipas had not yet been broken across two sets. One more hold would have taken him into a tie-break and given him a good chance to close the account. But Tsitsipas won only one point in that twelfth game and a determined Jarry sealed the set 7-5.

Nonetheless, Tsitsipas moved out in front 2-1 in the third set, breaking serve in the third game. Jarry broke right back. Later, Tsitsipas served to stay in then match at 4-5 in that final set. He fought off three match points but a bold and unrelenting Jarry came through on the fourth to win 3-6, 7-5, 6-4. That set the stage for a semifinal between Jarry and a surging Tommy Paul, fresh from back to back upset wins over Daniil Medvedev and Hubert Hurkacz.

Jarry and Paul put on a sparkling show. Jarry took the opening set in 42 minutes, gaining the crucial service break for 5-3 and serving it out at 15 with an ace out wide. When Jarry built a 4-2 second set lead, he seemed well on his way to a straight sets triumph. But Paul had broken the big serving Hurkacz no fewer than seven times in the quarters. He is a first rate returner. The American broke back for 4-4 against Jarry and prevailed deservedly in a second set tie-break 7-3 after establishing a 4-0 lead.

Briefly, the momentum was with Paul. But not for long. Jarry saved a break point with an overhead winner at 2-2 in the final set, broke Paul in the next game, and swiftly moved on to 5-2. At 5-3, he served for the match and reached 40-0. But he missed a difficult forehand pass on the first match point and Paul then released a backhand down the line winner and a crosscourt backhand that clipped the baseline and provoked a mistake from Jarry. 

The Chilean cracked an ace to garner a fourth match point, only to net a backhand down the line volley that he well could have made. A resolute Paul then advanced to break point but Jarry connected with a potent first serve to set up a forehand winner. The American forged a second break point opportunity but Jarry erased that one with a scorching inside in forehand that was unanswerable. Another ace brought Jarry to match point for the fifth time, and this one went his way as Paul rolled a forehand long. Jarry was victorious 6-3, 6-7 (3), 6-3.

Meanwhile, while all of the attention was ultimately focussed on the two finalists, it was on the first weekend of the tournament that the two dominant Italian Open champions of the past twenty years were both ushered out of the tournament unceremoniously. First, Rafael Nadal, the ten-time champion in Rome, was beaten 6-1, 6-3 in the third round by Hurkacz as he competed in his third clay court tournament since coming back in April at Barcelona.

He had lost his second round match in Barcelona to De Minaur. In his next outing at Madrid, Nadal avenged that loss to the Australian and managed to win three matches altogether before he was blasted off the court by the big serving and explosive groundstrokes of Jiri Lehecka. In Rome, the Spaniard won one match before his contest with Hurkacz. The first two games of that showdown lasted 27 minutes. Nadal had five break points in the opening game and Hurkacz had two in the second game. Neither man broke and so it was 1-1.

A hard fought and long encounter seemed almost inevitable, but the Polish 27-year-old swept five games in a row to take that first set, saving two more break points in the seventh game. He was mixing up his ground game beautifully, hitting high trajectory shots to keep Nadal at bay and off balance, then ripping flat shots to rush the Spaniard into errors. In the second set, Hurkacz broke early and completely outclassed Nadal. He also served him off the court, winning 16 of 17 points on his devastatingly effective delivery. With one more break at the end, Hurkacz surged to a 6-1, 6-3 triumph.

A day later, Djokovic, the six-time Italian Open victor, met Tabilo in his third round contest. Djokovic had played well in his second round meeting against the Frenchman against Corentin Moutet to win 6-3, 6-1. But afterwards, Djokovic was hit in the head by a water bottle while signing autographs. He had the next day off but when he returned to play Tabilo, the Serbian was almost unrecognizable. Beaten 6-2, 6-3, Djokovic never even reached deuce on the Chilean’s serve. On top of that, Djokovic, broken four times in the match, double faulted on break point thrice including at set point down in the first set and when he was behind match point in the second. Tabilo was terrific off the ground and on serve, but Djokovic was listless, lacking in purpose and seemingly disoriented. Some astute observers including Jim Courier thought Djokovic might have suffered a concussion from the freakish water bottle incident, but he did tests back in Serbia which indicated that was not the case.

Now Djokovic has decided to give himself a chance— if all goes according to plan— to potentially play a string of much needed matches at the ATP 250 tournament in Geneva this week. All year long, he has played only 17 matches, winning 12 of those duels. But nine of those contests were at the beginning of the season in Australia. Since then, he has played only eight matches. On the clay, he went to the semifinals in Monte Carlo where he benefitted from four matches, but he skipped Madrid and hoped to find his form again in Rome.

Realizing that losing in the third round there left him not only lacking in match play but not up to par in terms of confidence as well, Djokovic will try to make amends in Geneva. A good showing in that clay court tournament— either winning the tournament or at least making the final—would send the Serbian into Roland Garros feeling much better about his chances to win the world’s premier clay court championship for the third time in four years and the fourth time overall in his career.

How do the other favorites stack up? It is awfully difficult to assess either Carlos Alcaraz or Jannik Sinner. Alcaraz missed Monte Carlo and Barcelona and probably rushed his return in Madrid, losing in the high altitude to Andrey Rublev in the quarterfinals. Then he was forced to miss Rome. He is clearly underprepared. As for Sinner, he played well in Monte Carlo before losing a semifinal to Tsitsipas. He advanced to the quarterfinals of Madrid but defaulted against Felix Auger-Aliassime with a hip injury.

Will Alcaraz and Sinner be back at full force in Paris? I have my doubts, but the fact remains that Sinner has been the best player in the world this year, capturing his first major in Melbourne at the Australian Open, adding titles in Rotterdam and Miami, and winning 28 of 30 matches over the course of the season. Alcaraz broke out of a long slump to defend his title at Indian Wells, but missing almost all of the clay court circuit en route to Rome has surely disrupted his rhythm.

I would make Zverev the slight favorite to win his first Grand Slam tournament at Roland Garros. If Djokovic can turn things around this week and rekindle his game, there is no reason he can’t succeed at Roland Garros again. I make him the second favorite. Out of respect for Alcaraz’s innate talent and unmistakable clay court comfort, I see him as the third most likely to succeed with Sinner close behind him. But that is assuming they are fit to play and fully ready to go.

Tsitsipas and Casper Ruud must be taken seriously as candidates for the title in Paris. Tsitsipas upended Medvedev and Zverev in 2021 to reach the Roland Garros final, and then found himself up two sets to love up against Djokovic before losing that hard fought battle in five sets. Ruud has been to the last two French Open finals, bowing against Nadal in 2022 and Djokovic a year ago. They started this clay court season magnificently, with Tsitsipas defeating Ruud in the Monte Carlo final and Ruud reversing that result in the final of Barcelona. Both men figure to be in the thick of things this time around at Roland Garros.

Where does Nadal fit into this picture? He will surely be more inspired at his home away from home than he was in his three other clay court tournaments leading up to Roland Garros, but it will take a monumental effort for the 14-time French Open victor to rule again this time around. With a decent draw, he could get to the round of 16 or perhaps the quarterfinals, but even that will be a hard task for him after all he has endured physically the last couple of years. Nadal turns 38 on June 3. If he somehow prevails once more in Paris, it would be the single most astonishing achievement of his sterling career.

The battle for clay court supremacy at Roland Garros will be fierce. The leading contenders will be highly motivated to find success. The defending champion will be in full pursuit of a 25th Grand Slam title. Inevitably, some gifted players will be ready to emerge, and others will be determined to reemerge. I am very much looking forward to watching it all unfold and discovering who will be the last man standing at the clay court capital of the world.

NOTE: All photos via Francesca Micheli/Ubitennis

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Can Defensive Tennis Still Be A Success Story In Women’s Tennis?

Slam triumphs, top rankings: in just a few years we have witnessed the rise and fall of a certain way of playing tennis. So what’s really been happening? Kerber, Halep, and Wozniacki have been the latest successful performers of defensive gameplay.

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SIMONA HALEP OF ROMANIA - PHOTO: MATEO VILLALBA / MMO

The last two WTA 1000 events, Miami and Madrid, whose final featured Danielle Collins vs. Elena Rybakina and Iga Swiatek vs. Aryna Sabalenka respectively, have confirmed a trend that in recent seasons seems more and more entrenched in the women’s tour: the prevalence of offensive tennis over defensive tennis.

Compared to a few years ago, things seem to have profoundly changed, to the point of almost being reversed. This does not mean that a certain type of “reactive” game has disappeared, nor that tennis based on the effectiveness of the defensive component has been scrapped. Yet, it is a matter of fact that players who rely predominantly on this approach struggle to break through and reach the top positions, unlike just a few years ago.

Before trying to identify the reasons for this phenomenon, it is necessary to verify whether the thesis is true. Here are some data. Below are the WTA rankings of the past years starting from 2015. I have highlighted in yellow the players who, in my opinion, can be associated with a defensive type of tennis.

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A first comment on the 2015-17 period and the players I highlighted. Few doubts about Wozniacki, Kerber, Svitolina, and Errani. These are athletes who were never afraid of engaging in long rallies, and who often strove to turn the match into an endurance challenge, an arm wrestle over durability. It was not logical for them to seek quick and rushed points.

Including Simona Halep may seem less obvious. However, in my view, in her approach there prevails a tendency to rely on a “reaction” strategy, hitting back at her opponent’s choices; a counter-attack game, specular to an idea of pure aggressive tennis based on systematically and immediately getting the upper hand in rallies.

That is why I also highlighted Radwanska and Sevastova. In their case, it was mainly their lack of power that forced them to leverage their opponent’s power. As a result, hitting a winner could not be their first option. Winning points by eliciting errors from their opponent was far easier, simply by lengthening the rallies.

I was tempted to include Stephens and Kuznetsova as well, but in their case the matter is particularly complex because they are such eclectic players that they are difficult to confine to just one category. In fact, on the occasion of Sloane Stephens’ victory in the 2017 US Open, I decided to describe Stephens as “indefinable.”

Now let’s move on to the next three years, 2018 to 2020. 

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2018 represents the pinnacle of defensive tennis, with four of its icons at the top of the rankings and three more in the top 15. After all, 2018 is the year that sees Wozniacki win in Australia (defeating Halep in the final), Halep in Paris, and Kerber at Wimbledon. At the WTA Finals in Singapore, Elina Svitolina reaps the most prestigious title of her career.

If 2018 is to be considered the zenith of defensive tennis, since 2019 there has been quite a crushing decline, confirmed by the rankings of the last three years, 2021 to 2023. 

Here follows a chart of the results in the Slams and WTA Finals from 2015 to 2024.

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The final Top 10 ranking 2023 featured no player with a markedly defensive imprint. Daria Kasatkina was the only flagbearer holding on in the top 20.  Players deploying aggressive tennis now seem to have taken the lead in operations.

Which are the causes that have led to the current scenario? I have identified three, which may also have been acting jointly.

1) Lack of generational turnover

One possible thesis is that the structural conditions of the women’s tour haven’t changed significantly, but that we are simply going through an episodic lack of generational turnover in defensive tennis. A temporary blackout which is bound to be overcome over time.

Wozniacki (born 1990) and Kerber (born 1988) were halted first by physical issues and then by maternity leave. Maternity also for Svitolina (born 1994), while Halep (born 1991) has been sidelined for almost two years by her doping case. In essence, all of the strongest defensive tennis players have disappeared from the top ranks due to factors unrelated to the court; somewhat prematurely, and that is also why there has not been time to find successors.

On the other hand, as of today, there are not many players aged under 30 on the horizon. I would mention Mertens (born 1995) and Kasatkina (born 1997). If we take into account that a possible alternative like Sorribes Tormo (best ranking 28) is 27, it’s quite hard to identify who can perpetuate defensive tennis.

2) Changed game conditions

For this second hypothesis, we are venturing along a complex and uneven path, which would require much more space for being addressed as it deserves. In short, the proposition holds that “slow” playing conditions favour defensive tennis, whereas “fast” playing conditions snugly fit with aggressive tennis. Should this hypothesis turn out to be grounded, organizers would simply have to decide to speed up or slow down the playing conditions and tables would be turned.

I recall the “very slow” 2018 WTA Finals in Singapore, won by Svitolina over Stephens.  As far as I am concerned, I do not have such data to suggest that in recent years the playing conditions have been sped up, thus penalizing defensive players. Almost certainly the last Finals (Guadalajara, Forth Worth, and Cancun) were played in faster conditions than the previous editions held in Asia, but it is far more complicated to prove this for the Slams and other major tournaments. 

I remember that when talking about playing conditions, not only the surface of the courts should be taken into account, but also the balls used (as well as humidity, altitude, etc). And for some essential data there no certainties, which means that the thesis is possible, but not provable.

3) Further growth of offensive players

Third hypothesis: in recent seasons new aggressive players who have risen to the very top have also enhanced the quality of their tennis, raising the bar to such heights which appear to be out of the reach of defensive players. Ultimately, offensive players have been making greater strides than defensive players.

I would say that such growth has manifested itself in two different directions. On the one hand, some players have further strengthened the offensive component, starting with the quality of their serve or and groundstrokes (as in the case of Rybakina and Sabalenka).

On the other, fewer “one-dimensional” tennis players have emerged. Currently we are seeing athletes who are comfortable not only when commanding the rally, but also when compelled to defend themselves. Let’s consider the latest year-end No. 1s: we went from Kerber/Halep (2016-18) to Barty/Swiatek (2019-2023). Well, both Barty and Swiatek were and are players capable of producing more wins than Angelique and Simona, but without going down when under pressure or scurrying and scrambling.

Wozniacki, Kerber, and Halep have relied on their great mobility and superior court coverage skills to reach the top. However, today No. 1 spot is held by a tennis player like Swiatek who, besides being a remarkable ball-striker, in terms of mobility is not at all inferior to Wozniacki & Co.

Indeed, my personal belief is that Iga is probably the best-moving tennis player since Steffi Graf. Maybe not yet when moving forward, but at least horizontally, off her right and left wing. In fact, as well as being endowed with a superlative rapidity and responsiveness, Swiatek possesses phenomenal coordination skills. A gift that enables her to organize her swing in very few moments, even if she is called upon to execute it at the end of a sprint or lunge, perhaps sliding. This means that those players who rely mainly on defensive skills are likely to find themselves lacking sufficient weapons to face an opponent with such qualities.

Conclusions

This is the current situation. What about the future? Since I do not possess a magic crystal ball, I do not feel like reciting a “de profundis” for defensive tennis. Things could change, especially in the long term.

In the short term, there is still the possibility that the “senior” players will be able to retrieve their best levels. After all, already last year at Wimbledon Svitolina was able to reach the semifinals after ousting Swiatek in the quarters. And probably if she had managed to defeat Vondrousova in the semifinals, in my opinion, she would have had very good chances against Jabeur, considering their records in finals (Ons 5 won and 8 lost, Elina 17 won and 5 lost).

Before being halted by Vondrousova, Svitolina had appeared as full of conviction, recharged by her maternity break. Which brings us back to the mental component, which can sometimes prove to be the extra weapon, capable of overshadowing physical-technical aspects.  If a defensive player endowed with an exceptional killer instinct were to burst into the WTA tour, quite different scenarios might open up.

Translated by Carla Montaruli

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