“I knew exactly what I was trying to do”: How Riske upset No. 1 Barty

“I knew exactly what I was trying to do”: How Riske upset No. 1 Barty

The 29-year-old American produced some of the most exiting high-wire tennis of the fortnight.

82, 37, 51: No tennis match can be summed up in just three numbers, but those go a long way to explaining Alison Riske’s surprise 3-6, 6-2, 6-3 win over No. 1 seed Ash Barty at Wimbledon on Monday.

The first number, 82, is Barty’s winning percentage on points where she made her first serve. The second number, 37, is her winning percentage on points where she had to hit a second serve—that’s a big drop by any measure. The third and most important number, 51, is Barty’s first-serve percentage. By having to play a second serve on every other point, the world No. 1 was asking for trouble.

The reason she was in trouble, of course, had nothing to do with Barty, and everything to do with what Riske was doing on her return—and her forehand, and her backhand, and her volley, and in her own service games. This win had been a long time coming for the 29-year-old from the grass-court desert of Pittsburgh, PA, but a decade after joining the tour she gave us the performance of her life, and advanced to her first Grand Slam quarterfinal.

It took a little while for Riske to get all of her shots in tune with each other. In the opening game, Barty came out and threw down four straight aces, all of them landing within an inch of the T. From there until early in the second set, the Australian maintained control of the points, primarily with her biting backhand slice.

But rather than lose belief in herself, which would have been easy to do against the tour’s top-ranked player, Riske dug deeper and stayed with a game plan that went something like this: Take care of your serve, jump on Barty’s second serves and go after her slightly weaker backhand, open up the court with crosscourt forehands, and finish points either with (a) down the line forehand winners, or (b) aggressive forays to the net. Nothing to it, right?

As smart as Riske’s tactics were, her execution was even better. Riske hit a dozen more winners than Barty from the ground, and made 15 fewer errors; she came to net 11 more times than Barty and won 12 more points there; and she was four for four on break points. Riske took all the chances, but was never reckless or erratic. Digging, grunting, lunging and scrambling, playing with virtually no margin for error, skimming the net and aiming close to the lines with her shots, punching balls away with a two-handed backhand volley, Riske’s single-minded, well-thought-out aggression never looked smooth or effortless. But that’s what made it so exciting to watch—this was grass-court tennis at its most percussive. You couldn’t believe she could keep it up, but she never looked surprised by how well she was playing.

“I think ultimately it just came down to being ready for a battle,” said Riske, whose coach, Billy Heiser, and soon-to-be-husband, Stephen Amritraj, helped her map out a statistics-based strategy for facing Barty. “Nothing is ever going to be perfect out there. I just think I was ready for whatever was going to come my way.”

“I knew exactly what I was trying to do out there, what I was trying to execute. I knew that if I did them better than 50 percent, I was probably going to come out on top.”

Rather than let herself be intimidated by Barty’s four-ace opening game, Riske simply calculated the odds that the Aussie could keep it up.

“I felt like it was very unlikely that that was going to continue, because I’ve never had that happen before,” Riske said. “I had confidence that as the match wore on, first-serve percentages would probably start declining. I was going to have looks ultimately.”

That’s exactly what happened; afterward, Barty rued the decline of her first serve.

“I think I started well,” Barty said. “Then in the second set, I think my serve let me down. I let Alison get back in the match too many times, having looks at second serves...Tough one to swallow, but I lost to a better player.”

When Barty’s last backhand landed wide, Riske clenched her first and walked to the net; this was a moment of satisfaction, rather than euphoria for her. While she grew up on hard courts, she’s been a threat on grass since she made a deep run from nowhere at the Birmingham event in 2013.

“When I go on grass, I don’t really think about anything. It just happens,” Riske said. “I hit pretty flat and I love coming forward, and I have a great return.”

But that love of grass had never translated at Wimbledon, where she was just 7-8 before this year. Now she has made good on her potential the hard way, with four straight three-set wins, one of them over the world No. 1. Does her upcoming wedding to Amritraj have anything to do with her breakthrough?

“I wish I could get married more often,” Riske joked today. “Maybe we’ll have to renew our vows, because it’s worked out so well having that on the horizon.”

With a new future around the corner, Riske is staying in the moment for now. When she was asked how she felt about being in the final eight at a major, and facing Serena Williams, Riske didn’t hesitate with her answer:

“Bring it on,” she said.