Tennis

Ash Barty’s win at Wimbledon last weekend was a childhood dream, fulfilled with grace and humility. By Martin McKenzie-Murray.

Ash Barty’s Wimbledon victory

Ash Barty after winning the 2021 Wimbledon ladies’ singles final.
Credit: PA

It began like a dream. In her second grand slam final, and her first on the grass of Wimbledon, Ashleigh Barty won the first 14 points. Three of those points came from aces, another from a sumptuous lob made from well behind the baseline. Another point – a backhand driven perfectly down the line – broke her opponent’s first service game and, it seemed, her confidence.

Barty’s opponent, the Czech Karolína Plíšková, looked haunted, immobile. Her very first serve was a conspicuously diminished 135 kilometres an hour, some 40 per cent slower than her peak speed. Nervousness seemed to embalm her, while Barty’s powerful forehand drives and her famously advanced backhand slice – a shot made so low that it almost kisses the net cord – combined to bully Plíšková around the court, pushing her not only to the corners, but also back and forth from net to baseline.

Barty had her opponent on a string and, if it all seemed like a dream for the Australian, it would have seemed like a potential nightmare for the neutral fan: a frictionless blowout. After just 19 minutes, it was 5-1 to Barty and the Australian was serving for the first set. The second point of this game was magic: on the rally’s 11th shot, Plíšková attempted a winning drive into Barty’s right corner that Barty somehow converted into her own winner – a cross-court forehand that landed, precisely and powerfully, well inside the service box.

But then came the script’s first, small revision: against the rhythm of the match, Plíšková recovered some of her skill and fluency and broke Barty’s serve. That made it 5-2. That Plíšková could have recovered sufficiently to overturn her handicap in this set was futile, but her modest revival transformed a 6-1 loss into a more respectable 6-3.

If Plíšková had shown flashes of her considerable skill towards the end of the first set, the second continued the script of Barty’s dominance. Such were Plíšková’s unforced errors, indifferent serves and seeming lethargy, it could seem at times that Barty wasn’t doing that much. At 3-1 in the second set, the easy assumption was for a quick straight-sets victory for the Australian.

Like Test cricket, the fluctuations of ascendancy in tennis can be difficult to fix to specific moments. The flow of a match is often defined by trends rather than moments, as in the difference between weather and climate. But if you were to pin Plíšková’s dramatic recovery to a specific point, her winning drive to break Barty’s serve and level the set at 3-3 might be it.

Plíšková’s former coach once said of her that there was a world champion inside waiting to get out, and we saw the exciting, partial fulfilment of this latency in the second half of the second set. Plíšková restored venom to her serve and confidence to her forehand and clawed the set back. Still, with Barty serving for the title at 6-5, there was more fighting for her to do.

Plíšková, it turned out, did not have a monopoly on ruinous nerves. Serving for the championship, Barty was easily broken. Plíšková won the subsequent tie-breaker and the neutral fan had a cherished deciding set. Plíšková was back.

 

At very few moments in the match had each finalist simultaneously played at their best, and it was hoped that in this deciding set their talents might be gloriously braided. Instead, Barty restored her dominance.

At one point in the final set, Plíšková pushed Barty out wide on her baseline, forcing from her a harmlessly lofted return. Plíšková rushed to the net to kill the rally with a volley into an open court – an easy winner, achievable with closed eyes. Instead, Plíšková slapped the ball into the net. Her serve was broken, and so were her hopes. Barty won the set 6-3 and was Wimbledon champion – the fulfilment of a childhood dream. She became the first Australian woman to win the singles title since her great mentor, Evonne Goolagong Cawley, in 1980 (Barty’s win also came on the 50th anniversary of Goolagong Cawley’s first Wimbledon title).

The influence of Goolagong Cawley on the Indigenous Barty, and the resonance of the anniversary, was a touching subplot to the Australian’s triumphant run. Before the tournament, Barty had asked her clothing sponsor to design a uniform that echoed her mentor’s from half a century before – thus, the much-remarked flowers and scalloped hemline. Beyond this, Barty’s closeness to her is obvious, and it’s rare that the new Wimbledon champ doesn’t speak about her without emotion.

In the immediate post-match interview, after Barty had fallen to her knees in tearful disbelief, she was asked about her mentor. She was also asked a question – an obligatory and simple one – that yielded something very interesting.

“Talk us through that match point,” Barty was asked.

“I don’t remember it.”

That match point had occurred only a few minutes before, but Barty’s response gave some insight into the ecstatic distortions of time and memory that follow intense concentration and triumph. She had been intensely inside the moment – but now, released from it, it was a blur.

 

In Barty’s first serve of the final set, not one but two attempts to serve were aborted by crowd noise. Barty is not a particularly demonstrative player, and in this moment betrayed no frustration. She paused, wiped sweat from her brow, bounced the ball, then tossed to serve. Then patiently repeated this process.

Compare this with Novak Djokovic’s petulance the next day, during the men’s final, when he bitterly reproached the crowd for supporting his opponent. He was identically upset during last year’s Australian Open final, when the audience betrayed the great man by supporting the underdog. Djokovic, you sense, is used to having the world bend to his considerable will – and this extends to his need to be liked and respected. Historically gifted on the court, he gets messy when faced with any defiance of his will. Barty, it seems obvious, is not plagued by so unruly and complicated an ego.

Barty’s modesty and warmth is a refreshing contrast to what the late Kobe Bryant confessionally described as “the ugliness of greatness”. But few citizens are as burdened by the public’s emotional projections as its athletes, and we should gently admire but not fetishise Barty’s virtues. Valourisation begets caricature which begets the shape of the effigy that’s torched in the public square when our delirious expectations aren’t met.

But, yes: there’s much to be proud of. Patty Mills – Indigenous Australian, Boomer and an Olympic flag-bearer for Tokyo – choked up when asked about Barty’s triumph. “I got asked post game tonight about Ash Barty’s Wimbledon victory and immediately got the biggest rock in my throat and what felt like a million goosebumps,” he tweeted later.

Like Mills, Barty is now off to Tokyo. She hasn’t been home since March – more a measure of our quarantine protocols than her schedule. She hasn’t complained. She’s aiming for a medal. And as she does, it’s hard to spot a significant weakness in her game, and easy to see her becoming, in a turbulent female class, a fixture at the world’s peak.

But like Barty, let’s not get crazy.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Jul 17, 2021 as "Civil service".

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Martin McKenzie-Murray is The Saturday Paper’s sports editor.