NEW YORK—To watch reigning Roland Garros champion Ashleigh Barty in full bloom is to witness a delightful tennis rainbow. From the carved slice backhand to the crackling serve, from the topspin forehand to the flat two-hander, to her crisp-as-autumn-air volleys, the 23-year-old Australian’s 2019 ascent has given hope to those who see tennis as a spectrum of skills instead of a narrow form of pragmatism. Not since Justine Henin has there been a women’s Grand Slam singles champion with such pleasing variety.
At the beginning of her first-round match at the US Open, though, Barty yielded undecipherable splatters as she struggled versus 80th-ranked Zarina Diyas, dropping the first set, 6-1. Though Barty would scrape though the last two, 6-3, 6-2, this was the classic case of an inquisitive underdog posing just enough questions to mildly jolt the favorite. Said Barty of this 102-minute effort, “not the ideal start, not the perfect start, but it is what it is. We were able to find a way after that to get into the match and be more patient, and really just kind of lock down and wait until I got the right balls and right patterns that I wanted.”
It began at noon, Barty and Diyas entering Arthur Ashe Stadium on an autumn-like day, the temperature in the 60s and a mild breeze in the air. The 25-year-old Diyas can best be known as a recurring, early-round character, often earning headlines less for her own achievements—a career-high rank of No. 31, nearly five years ago, and three WTA singles titles—and more for taking out promising 15-year-old Americans: CiCi Bellis here in 2014, Coco Gauff in Washington, D.C. last month.
Diyas has made a name for herself in an unusual way. (Getty Images)
The Diyas game is an amalgamation of parts and pieces, a scarcely stylish but intermittently effective mix. Her forehand has a rather straight-back, rigid quality to it that precludes. But the backhand, also hardly elegant, can deliver flat balls, moon balls and the occasional slice. The Diyas winner tally for the first set: one. But as anyone who’s ever played competitively knows, tennis matches revolve even more around errors.
So it was that a classic range of factors—Diyas’ disruption, Barty’s nerves, opening day at a major—turned Barty’s paintbrush more into an aerosol can, the Aussie spraying 19 unforced errors in the first set. Said Barty, “she was able to put the ball in an awkward position for me, in a position where I couldn't attack.” Matters also weren’t helped by Barty putting in play a mere 25 percent of her first serves in that opener.
Through the second set, even as she sought to play more patiently, Barty remained scratchy. Yet even then, the smell of a major upset was hardly present. Credit Barty’s tranquility, a refreshing contrast to the early round pouts we’ve often witnessed from Simona Halep, who has lost her last two US Open openers.
Diyas could cut, but could she kill? With what? Matters remained in Barty’s calm hands. Still, at 3-3 in the second, the danger point neared. Barty closed out the seventh game with a cool 106 M.P.H. ace down the T in the deuce court. With Diyas serving at 3-4, Barty asserted herself just enough to earn the break. Swiftly, she served it out at 15, another ace down the T leveling the match.
Survive and advance: cliché, but comforting to Barty on this Day 1. (Getty Images)
The third game of the third set, with Diyas serving at 1-1, proved the pivot point. Credit Diyas for persisting, as she fought off three break points in this game, the third with an impressively improvised backhand half-volley lob.
“Zarina is very good,” said Barty. “She served particularly well today and she was able to get ahead of a lot of her service games.”
On the fourth break point, though, Diyas’ stick figure-like forehand betrayed her, sailing long. As Diyas moped, Barty’s range increased, her slice biting just that much more, the topspin starting to roll more profoundly. Said Barty, “Towards the end I served a lot better to give myself a chance to be dominant in the points.”
True: Barty would finish with 27 winners to just eight for Diyas. The underdog had asked her share of questions, but once Barty settled down and delivered the answers, the matter was settled. On an afternoon when athleticism had carried the day, artistry would have to wait.
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