There is more to come for Ash Barty after her French Open breakthrough

There is more to come for Ash Barty after her French Open breakthrough

The 23-year-old Aussie won her first major in convincing fashion, over fellow major final debutante Marketa Vondrousova.

After Ashleigh Barty captured the crown at Roland Garros so convincingly in the late-afternoon sunshine on Court Philippe Chatrier, she was greeted at the presentation ceremony by none other than Chrissie Evert. Before collecting her women’s record of seven singles titles at the French Open, Evert made her Paris debut in 1973, losing a classic contest against Margaret Court in her first major final. Not since Court had triumphed in that spirited clash with Evert 46 years ago had an Australian come through to take the world’s premier clay-court championship. Barty thus made history of a high order, rising to a big occasion honorably in her first major final, demonstrating unequivocally that she belongs in the territory of the elite.

Barty put on a scintillating display to beat an understandably apprehensive Marketa Vondrousova. 6-1, 6-3. The 19-year-old lefty from the Czech Republic is ranked 30 places below Barty at No. 38, and unlike her adversary had not been touted by many observers to make her presence known on one of the sport’s most renowned stages. She had celebrated a fortnight unlike any other in her young career, most prominently when she upended the resurgent Johana Konta in the semifinals. Vondrousova had rallied tenaciously in that contest after the British player served for both sets, succeeding in straight sets by raising her game when it counted the most.

But in Barty she met her match. The 23-year-old has been knocking on the door of eminence for the last couple of seasons, establishing herself as a player observers in every corner of the globe have loved watching because she has the most diversified game of any player in the world of women’s tennis. Barty has a terrific serve that she can vary beautifully: swinging it wide in the deuce court stylishly; sending it wide in the ad court with heavy kick; going down the middle with flatter deliveries when the situation calls for it. There is not a better situational server in the women’s game.

Yet there is so much more to her court vocabulary than that. Barty can spank the forehand either down the line, inside in or inside out with ease and excellent execution. She can drive her two-handed backhand both ways effortlessly. Her touch off that side is extraordinary. Barty’s sliced backhand is a beauty, and her drop shot is another strength. Moreover, she can come forward commandingly, and when she is drawn in by an opponent’s drop shot, her down the line chipped responses are top of the line. She combines finesse with power irresistibly.

To her dismay, Vondrousova found out that even with her remarkable southpaw skills, there was no way she could make much of an impression on someone who possesses such a wide range of shotmaking capabilities. In fact, it was to Vondrousova’s credit that she kept the second set remotely close after being cast aside swiftly and thoroughly in the opening set. The plain and simple truth is that Barty was in a league of her own in this final, and Vondrousova was outclassed if not overwhelmed by what was being thrown at her. There was nowhere for her to go tactically because Barty had the whole court covered.

From the outset, Barty’s poise and professionalism were fully on display. Meanwhile, Vondrousova was finding her bearings and trying to move past her inner tension. That was not easy with Barty so self assured from the opening bell on. Barty rolled to 3-0 without losing a point. In those first three games, she won 12 of 15 points, gave little away, and set a clear and certain tone for what was ahead.

Thereafter, Vondrousova slowly settled into the proceedings. Although she was broken a second time to trail 4-0, that game went twice to deuce before Barty secured it. Vondrousova was looking to open the court and control rallies with her flat forehand, but Barty was having none of it. The less established player finally got on the scoreboard at last in the fifth game. Barty double faulted on the penultimate point and then made one of her few glaring unforced errors off the forehand.

But in 28 highly efficient minutes, it was 6-1, Barty.

Be that as it may, Vondrousova fought on without negativity. In the first game of the second set, she had a game point, but Barty took it away from her with an impeccable backhand slice on the sideline in response to a drop shot. Barty gained the immediate break for 1-0, and never looked back, although her adversary didn't give in. The second game of the second set went to deuce four times. Vondrousova had one break point. But Barty went to the ad court kicker to get the hold, eliciting a forehand return error. It was 2-0 for the Australian.

Barty retained her advantage to 4-3, when she realized that it was time to close out the proceedings. Largely unthreatened on serve, knowing she was serving from ahead and in firm control, Barty sharpened her focus and concluded the match on her terms.

The eighth game essentially symbolized the tenor of the match. Barty held at love for 5-3, varying her serve admirably in terms of speeds and spins, coming forward unhesitatingly at 40-0. Vondrousova was determined to make Barty serve out the match, fighting fiercely to hold on in the ninth game, garnering two game points. But Barty was playing every point with clarity, strategic acumen and unwavering determination. She moved to match point, and sealed it masterfully with a trademark overhead winner off a short lob.

It was as if Barty had been competing for the game’s most prestigious prizes for many years. She conveyed a clear notion of who she was and what she wants to accomplish. She unmistakably believed in herself and liked her chances. Perhaps being pushed to her emotional limits in the semifinals by the dynamic Amanda Anisimova had raised her resolve and heightened her awareness of what was on the line at Roland Garros. Surviving that psychologically strenuous battle put Barty in good stead for the final. 

For the first time in her career, Barty won a tournament on clay, and that is no mean feat. After her victory, there was an immediate outpouring of affection from a multitude of players and people in the game who have long admired her character and talent.

“It’s been an incredible couple of weeks for me," she said. "That’s for sure. I think any time I can play my brand of tennis, I know I can match it against the best in the world. For the last fortnight, the stars have aligned for me. I have been able to play really good tennis when I needed it. This is incredible. I never dreamt that I’d be sitting here with this trophy here at the French Open.”

She also spoke about the significance of her serve as one of the cornerstones of the game.

“I was very fortunate that my coach developed this game and created this game that was technically sound. I know that my technique is sound and that I can trust it. It’s been a natural progression of becoming stronger and being able to trust myself to hit my spots on my serve. My serve is a massive part of my game, and I try to think my way around the court. I know where my opponents like to return and try to expose those spots as best that I can.”

Barty then spoke movingly about being only the second indigenous Australian to win a Grand Slam title, joining Evonne Goolagong in that exclusive category.

“It’s remarkable,” she said. “Evonne sent me a text a couple of days ago and said this was her first Grand Slam. I spotted her name on the trophy. I will giver her a call a little later on. It’s amazing that she has created this path for indigenous tennis in Australia. I think now it’s becoming more nationwide.”

What will become of Ash Barty? She is far too gifted and driven to settle for just one major title. She has at least seven to 10 more years of top flight tennis ahead of her. Her game has so many layers and her versatility is so extraordinary that there is no reason she can’t win at least two to three more Grand Slam tournaments before she walks away from the game of tennis. Perhaps she will win more than that.

For the time being, she justifiably would like some time to digest what happened at the French Open and let it settle into her system. Barty should celebrate the immense progress she has made and pause to appreciate what it took to claim a major crown for the first time. But then she will need to chase other dreams of a similar magnitude and find out if they can be realized.

The view here is that Barty will embrace her new status and view herself in an entirely different light as a champion who wants to grow fully into her talent. It will take at least three to five years to know if she can live up to higher expectations and move on to other lofty destinations. In the meantime, it will be fun to watch the single most appealing stylist in women’s tennis go to work across the years and try to make the most of herself.