INTERVIEW: Barty and her "unreal feeling"

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Fancy this. The shot that separates Ashleigh Barty from her peers is one hit by millions of recreational players—but rarely seen among pros. Please now, usher the slice backhand out from the shadows and into the spotlight. Granted, Barty hits her slice with exceptional proficiency. And she backs it up with a shot you won’t see at your local tennis facility: a well-disguised, versatile, blistering forehand, directed at will to any part of the court. Ditto for the Barty serve.

But make no mistake, Barty’s slice was the pivotal disruptor in her 6-1, 6-3 win over Madison Keys in Thursday evening’s Australian Open semi. Time and time again, the Barty backhand’s distinctly different speed, spin, height, depth and angle eroded Keys’ contact point as surely and harmfully as Halloween candy will trigger tooth decay. “Her slice is coming in so much lower and deeper than it was in the past so it's hard to do anything on that,” said Keys. “Then you try to play to her forehand and she can open you up there.”

Yet for all Barty’s stiletto-like precision, to dictate one rally after another wasn’t going to be an easy task versus an in-form Keys. Over the course of the Australian summer, Keys had played superb tennis, including a crisp win in the previous round versus another player with a fine slice backhand, Roland Garros champion Barbora Krejcikova.

As early as the third point of the match, Barty’s slice—just about always hit crosscourt—began its mission of coaxing errors and eliciting openings. Serving at 30-love in the opening game, the slice came Keys’ way, followed by a backhand drive lined into the net. A similar pattern occurred when Keys served at 40-30. As Keys said, “on her backhand side, I mean, everything is coming in at your shoelaces at the baseline.” Two points later, Barty swiftly reached a Keys drop shot and whipped a crosscourt forehand winner to earn the break.

Barty's backhand knifing contributed to Keys making 24 unforced errors (in comparison to just eight winners).

Barty's backhand knifing contributed to Keys making 24 unforced errors (in comparison to just eight winners).

Formidable as Keys can be from the baseline, the sharp lines of her game were becoming increasingly fuzzy, courtesy of Barty’s array of low slices, subsequent whipped forehands and smooth, assured court coverage. Rarely could Keys get the upper hand in a rally, Barty winning her first ten service points to take a 4-1, 30-love lead. Though Keys eventually earned a break point in that game, Barty erased it with a wide ace and soon won the first set in 26 minutes. Said Barty, “Obviously I was able to make Maddie uncomfortable and make her press, and that was kind of part of the plan, as well. I felt like we did a really good job all in all of playing the match in kind of our terms.”

The second set was moderately tighter. Serving at 0-1, love-30, Keys fought well to hold, aided by an excellent kick serve at 15-30 and an improvised slice backhand of her own at 30-30. At 2-2, aided by a few moonballs that contributed to Barty playing more nervously, Keys reached break point. Here again, Barty snapped into action – a sharp serve down the T in the ad court, followed up by a committed forehand down-the-line approach and a conclusive smash. In the next game, Keys serving at 2-3 deuce, Barty hit a shot even more rarely seen than a slice backhand: a slice forehand return, this one sharply angled crosscourt, opening up the court for a forehand winner. At break point, Keys, clearly out of sorts in her movement and timing, made her way to net, hit a weak backhand volley and was easily passed by a Barty forehand.

“I know if I do the right things on my part it will make my opponent uncomfortable,” said Barty. “I think it's a little bit of a double-edged sword in a way. Sometimes it's really nice to be able to focus internally and just focus on what you need to do and then other times it's nice to look up the other end of the court and see how your opponent is reacting.” Ahead 4-2, Barty served a love game and at 5-3 held at 15 to close out the match in 62 minutes.

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Barty improved to 3-1 in major singles semifinals; Keys dropped to 1-4.

Barty improved to 3-1 in major singles semifinals; Keys dropped to 1-4.

Poorly as this match went for Keys, it was terrific to see her in the thick of a major once again. A new attitude towards competition, wed to Keys’ excellent serve and powerful groundstrokes, could bode well for an excellent 2022. “I think that the biggest thing that I have learned from this trip is that enjoying myself on a tennis court is absolutely vitally important for me,” said Keys. “At the end of the day I have to enjoy what I'm doing, and I have to figure out how to not put all of that pressure on myself so that I can enjoy tennis, because when I can enjoy tennis I'm capable of playing at a much higher level than what was happening last year.”

Barty has become the first Australian Open woman to reach the singles final here since Wendy “The Rabbit” Turnbull in 1980. The last Australian—woman or man—to win the singles title Down Under was Chris O’Neil in 1978. Asked how she’s handling the pressure of such an opportunity, Barty said. “It's brilliant to be playing in the business end of your home slam. I'm not gonna lie about that. It's amazing. I think being able to experience it multiple times has been incredible, but Saturday's going to be a new experience for me. So I go out there and embrace it, smile, try and do the best that I can and whatever happens happens. It's been an incredible January, an incredible summer for us. Yeah, I'm really looking forward to having one last crack here to really go out there and enjoy it.”

Take a crack—and crack a carve. So goes the Barty gestalt, poise and precision the two major assets that make her a compelling champion.