Much like the legendary Australian champions of the 1950s and 1960s, Ashleigh Barty lets her racquet do the talking.
So it was both fitting and nostalgic that on the 83rd birthday of consummate sportsman Roy Emerson, Barty efficiently dispatched Elina Svitolina 6-4, 6-3 in the final of the Shiseido WTA Finals in Shenzhen, China. Like Emmo, whose record 28 major men’s titles in singles and doubles will never be broken, Rod Laver, Ken Rosewall, Frank Sedgman and Margaret Court, whose record 62 majors are also unbreakable, Barty is a fair dinkum Aussie in every respect. She’s modest, hard-working and honourable, and she cherishes the camaraderie and support of her family, friends and travelling team.
In post-match interviews, Barty often uses “we” — rather than “I” — to start sentences and credits her entourage for her success. “I’m very biased, but I believe I have the best team in the world,” Barty said during the trophy presentation. “I’m very lucky to have Tyzz [Craig Tyzzer], first and foremost, as my coach. He leads the ship for us. He’s the captain.”
Barty also exemplifies three more Australian traits of yesteryear stars: she’s a terrific competitor, a superb athlete and a beautiful volleyer. All of those assets were gloriously displayed in Barty’s debut at the season-ending tournament in China. Aside from blowing a set and a service break lead and succumbing 3-6, 6-3, 6-4 against hard-hitting Kiki Bertens in the round-robin phase, the 23-year-old played her best when it mattered the most. She rebounded from a one-set deficit to stop Belinda Bencic 5-7, 6-1, 6-2. Then Barty showed the same resilience to overcome Karolina Pliskova 4-6, 6-2, 6-3 in a semifinal where the 5’5” Aussie’s speed trumped the 6’1” Czech’s power.
Svitolina, the defending WTA Finals champion, was even more impressive. The 25-year-old Ukrainian defeated Pliskova, Wimbledon champion Simona Halep, and alternate Sofia Kenin in straight-sets, round-robin matches. Svitolina then wore down Bencic, who suffered foot, back and hamstring problems, and finally cramps that forced her to retire when trailing 5-7, 6-3, 4-1.
The long, hard season and the unusually slow courts took a heavy toll on three other players in Shenzhen. Australian Open winner Naomi Osaka withdrew because of shoulder pain after edging Petra Kvitova; Bertens, Osaka’s replacement, retired when she had a viral illness against Bencic; and surprise US Open titlist Bianca Andreescu also retired after reinjuring her knee against Pliskova. Perhaps the lure of at least $4.24 million prize money for the winner ($4.4 million, if she went undefeated), a record for any men’s or women’s tournament, was too tempting to resist, even if players were injured, ill or exhausted.
Although the steady Svitolina had won all five of their matches, the more talented Barty was favoured in the final. Their last encounter, a 7-6, 5-7, 6-4 battle lasting more than three hours at Indian Wells in March, signalled Barty’s marked improvement. A fortnight later, the Australian claimed her first Premier Mandatory title at the Miami Open.
Barty would notch several more “firsts” in a breakthrough year which started with her ranked No. 15 and without a major semifinals on her resume. Ashleigh’s most prestigious title came at the French Open when she grabbed her first Grand Slam title. Two weeks later, Barty captured the Birmingham crown to ascend to No. 1 in the world for the first time. Those three titles came on outdoor hard courts, clay and grass, respectively, proving that her all-court game could prevail on every surface.
Even so, Barty faced another test on slow indoor hard courts at the WTA Finals against her nemesis. Until this year, Svitolina had also never reached a major semifinal — in 25 appearances. The rap on her was that she couldn’t win big matches at the biggest tournaments, aside from taking the WTA Finals a year ago. “She froze under the pressure of the Grand Slam spotlight. She would freak out,” said former No. 1 Lindsay Davenport, now a Tennis Channel analyst.
This season, the pattern switched considerably. After winning a tour-leading five titles in 2017 and four more in 2018, Svitolina had won none this season. On the plus side, she fared a career-best at the majors where she made the quarterfinals at the Australian Open and the semifinals at Wimbledon and the US Open. However, in decisive losses to Osaka, Halep and Serena Williams, Svitolina lacked the dynamic game, chiefly a huge weapon or two, to challenge her more accomplished opponents.
The even-keeled Barty exudes a calm confidence during crises. When she served at 4-4, 30-40 in the final, her poise helped stave off a break point as Svitolina sprayed a forehand wide. Then Barty showed off her firepower and versatility with a passing shot, volley winner, ace and another volley winner to hold for 5-4. Good attack almost always beats good defence. And in the next game on her fourth set point, Barty belted a forehand winner off a weak second serve to seize the first set 6-4.
With Barty leading 3-2 in the second set, Svitolina summoned her coach on the changeover, something she inexplicably didn’t do when struggling in the first set. Unlike coach Darren Cahill who berated Halep and called her “a disgrace” during her loss to Pliskova, Andrew Bettles encouraged Svitolina. “You can do this,” Bettles said. “You need to get back to the tactics we spoke about before. You’re straying away from it slightly. Go out there with renewed purpose. Stay with the hard shots into the backhand side. Hard and fast. You just backed off a bit. She got too much in the middle of the court and could dictate with her forehand.”
Sound advice for sure. But Svitolina continued to hit groundstrokes too softly and short, allowing Barty to keep punishing the Ukrainian with inside-in and inside-out forehands, not to mention wickedly angled backhand slices. Svitolina compounded her problems when she netted a woefully weak second serve for a double fault on break point. In her previous two matches, Svitolina had whacked a stunning total of 27 aces. Against Barty, she had just two (in the opening game) and her serve was a liability. Now Barty led 4-2.
Svitolina broke back to narrow the lead to 4-3. In the pivotal eighth game, she escaped her first three break points. The first break point came after Barty won a pair of exciting net duels where she showcased her volleying superiority. In one net duel, Barty toyed with her less agile and skillful opponent. Rather than immediately putting the ball away, she prolonged Svitolina’s duress with a low, finely placed shot that forced Svitolina to hit up so that Barty could easily put away a forehand volley. On the fourth break point, Svitolina stroked a backhand into the alley and dropped her racquet in frustration. That service break gave Barty a 5-3 lead.
Discouraged and angry, Svitolina, a paragon of consistency in her previous matches, committed four straight errors. Barty held serve at love to close out a 6-4, 6-3 victory.
“To come through a week like this you have to beat the best of the best,” Barty told wtatennis.com . “It takes me back to some memories in Miami, where I felt like I did that for the first time, beating back-to-back top-10 players, having that really consistent week. I’ve grown and developed so much since that fortnight. To be able to bounce back after the disappointment after my match with Kiki [Bertens here] was really important.”
The sensational week in Shenzhen added to Barty’s 2019 achievements. Besides capturing her first WTA Finals crown, she became the fifth player to win the WTA Finals on her debut and Australia’s first WTA Finals champion since Evonne Goolagong Cawley, who lifted the trophy twice, in 1974 and 1976. Though Barty was one of four women to claim majors in 2019, this title reinforced her No. 1 ranking. In fact, with 7,851 ranking points, she far surpassed No. 2 Pliskova’s 5,940 points and nearly doubled No. 10 and declining Serena Williams’ 3,935 points. That Barty racked up a tour-high 15 wins over top-10 opponents in 2019 is further evidence of her supremacy.
While Barty is neither colorful nor controversial, her game is undeniably exciting. Singing her praises, former world No. 5 Jimmy Arias said, “Barty has great variety. She’s 5’5”, but she has a weapon in her serve.” Here are some facts that prove his point: Barty ranked third in aces with 409 this year; she also led the WTA Tour in percentage of second serve points won at 51.4 percent, and won a terrific 64 percent against Svitolina.
Arias went on to say, “She’s one of the best volleyers in the game — men or women. Her forehand is heavy. She moves incredibly well. She has great anticipation. She has great instincts on the court.”
So what’s not to like? “The two-handed backhand is the one thing Barty can improve,” said Arias, a Tennis Channel analyst. “She doesn’t hit her two-handed backhand like a two-hander. She hits it like a one-hander. She doesn’t use her body; it’s all arm. If she masters the two-hander, she’ll be even better. And she’s already No. 1 in the world.”
Tennis is also No. 1 in the world in women’s sports by every criterion, especially fame and fortune. Barty is both appreciative and thrilled by the staggering $14 million prize money awarded to eight singles players and eight doubles teams at the WTA Finals, an important measure of women’s tennis progress. Her $4.42 million singles champion pay cheque far exceeded that for the equivalent ATP Finals, which awards only $2.7 million, Wimbledon’s $3 million and the US Open’s $3.8 million. It also surpassed other major sports tournaments, including the Masters golf tournament at $2 million and the Women’s World Cup at $4 million.
“The biggest thing, it’s been a growth of women’s sport,” Barty said. “For me individually, and I think for all of us players individually, it’s not something we think about. It’s more of kind of a general progression of putting our sport more on the map. We have the most beautiful sport, it’s a global sport. Now we’re getting more attention. I feel like we’ve earned that. We’ve come from nothing, and now we’re in this position where we’re breaking records. It’s very special for our game.”
Many things make Barty happy playing “the most beautiful sport,” but none more than representing her country in Fed Cup competition. This year she was unbeaten—4-0 in singles and 2-0 in doubles—when she led Australia to the final against a formidable French team last weekend in Perth. Australia hadn’t won the Fed Cup since 1974 when the graceful Goolagong, Barty’s girlhood idol and also part-aboriginal, starred.
Before the eagerly-awaited final, Barty said, “There’s one more very important week to cap off what would be the most perfect year. This Fed Cup final is something I’ve been looking forward to for a long time. Playing for your country, for myself to play in front of my friends and family, representing Australia, wearing the green and gold. There’s absolutely nothing better.”
Unfortunately, this last dream on Barty’s tennis bucket list was dashed by the heroics of Kristina Mladenovic.
The statuesque French veteran upset Barty 2-6, 6-4, 7-6 (1) to give the visitors a 2-1 lead. After an Aussie singles win leveled the score at 2-2, Mladenovic and Caroline Garcia outplayed Barty and Samantha Stosur 6-4, 6-3 to clinch France’s third Fed Cup title.
Barty came oh so close to capping off her “most perfect year.” Now, as the old Brooklyn Dodgers, who used to lose regularly to the New York Yankees in the World Series, used to say, “Wait ‘til next year!”