Ashleigh Barty is looking the business.
Less than two months after facing questions about her position at the top of the women’s game, Barty has two titles on different surfaces, is into the quarter-finals of the Madrid Open, and has unquestionably proved that she is the best in the world right now. Her latest win – beating Roland-Garros champion Iga Swiatek in straight sets in the last 16 in Madrid – is one of her finest of 2021 given Swiatek had won her last nine in a row on clay without dropping a set. It improves Barty’s hugely impressive record against top-20 players this year to 9-0 and extends her winning run on red clay to 14 matches.
With less than a month to go until Roland-Garros rolls round again, Barty is clearly setting the benchmark.
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Against Swiatek she showed all the qualities in her game. She was rocked early on the scoreboard as Swiatek went 3-0 ahead, but didn't seem phased on the court and fought back by winning seven of the next nine games to take the opening set. Her excellent defence and movement kept her in rallies and she was also able to quickly transition into attack. Last year at Roland-Garros it was Swiatek’s powerful top-spin game that players were finding tough to deal with, but on this occasion it was the teenager made to do the thinking by Barty. With her groundstrokes not able to penetrate as easily as they did in her first two matches - both straight-set wins - Swiatek was not able to assert control against the world No 1 and her serve – with a 46 per cent first-serve percentage and six double faults – looks to be an area of improvement along with her defence.
Barty, who faces another tough test in Petra Kvitova in the quarter-finals, does not have as much to work on. This is clearly a huge year for her after missing most of 2020 due to the Covid-19 pandemic and then deciding to leave Australia for the first time in over a year in March, with the likely return probably not until September. But since touching down at the Miami Open, which she won to firm up her position as world No 1, she has hardly put a foot wrong.
Not only does she seem comfortable as the best player in the world, but she also looks to be enjoying her status. It was enlightening to hear from Swiatek before the third-round match that she feels she might be able to learn from the approach and perspective adopted by Barty, who switched from tennis to cricket in 2014 and then back to tennis two years later, saying she took the break because "it was too much too quickly for me".
"I think it's a good example of dealing with expectations, just having some kind of a distance to the game,” said Swiatek, 19, when asked about Barty’s backstory. "I'm also having a hard time finding it. I want to kind of win every match, I want to win right now. Sometimes I'm not giving myself time. She did that.
"It just shows that when you're going to catch some perspective, just approach tennis differently, it's going to be easier. She's doing that. That's why she's winning tournaments. It seems too easy for her."
Barty has also made a change this year to help her stay on top. Having only previously played with polyester strings in her racquet, she decided to switch to a blend of half-gut strings, half-polyester – the same make-up used by Roger Federer. Considering her position at the top of the game it was potentially a risky move, but it has paid off. Barty has always had good control and now she has extra power, especially on her backhand and serve, to be able to match some of the bigger hitters on the WTA Tour.
What was also impressive about Barty against Swiatek was her on-court thinking. Before the match she said it would be a case of "figuring each other out" as they played for the first time – and she got the better of that side of the game against an opponent who works a lot on mental improvements.
"I really enjoyed myself out there tonight," said Barty afterwards. "I enjoyed the challenge. Iga's game is exceptional. It's really, really impressive. I love testing myself and trying to figure out the puzzle and challenges she created for me."
The challenge for the rest of the WTA Tour is to figure out how Barty can be beaten on red clay.
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