As Ashleigh Barty held up the French Open Trophy last weekend, the happiness on her face competed largely unsuccessfully with the look of utter disbelief that overshadowed the joy for much of the time.
To paraphrase Robert Frost, two roads diverged in a wood and Ashleigh Barty took the one less travelled by, and that has made all the difference.
That divergence reared its not-so-ugly head in September 2014. The then-18-year-old took a lengthy break from professional tennis in an effort to refresh herself mentally.
Not many players can leave the women’s tour for 18 months, play professional cricket for half of that period, return to the sport and rise to number five in the rankings.
But that is exactly what Barty did.
Junior tennis coach Jim Joyce began teaching Barty just before she turned five. Joyce said even then, the big thing that stood out with the youngster was her hand-eye coordination.
In his 40 years of coaching the sport, he said it was as good as he had ever seen. This probably explains why she was a dab hand at cricket too.
And how did she achieve all this success? By possessing a game full of variety, craft, and all-court tennis – a talent that seems to be dwindling in both the men’s and women’s game these days.
Three-time Roland Garros champion Arantxa Sanchez Vicari said as much.
“She’s definitely the player that nobody wants to play because she has the variety – she can play spin, slice, hard, drop shot, coming into the net or staying back.”
Rod Laver has hailed her as a future grand slam champion.
Because of her short stature and vast array of shots in her arsenal, she has been compared to five-time grand slam champion Martina Hingis by David Taylor, one of the Swiss star’s former coaches.
Fellow Aussie Thanasi Kokkinakis said that Barty “plays different”, in that she comes to the net, uses her slice well and, as a result, that makes things awkward for her opponents.
Barty’s slice backhand is arguably the best in the game.
Her forehand can be an absolute brute, which has been evident on the clay at this year’s French Open, she can create sharp angles with ease, and she is very adept at the net.
Perhaps most impressive of all, Barty hit 297 aces in 2018 – the fourth-highest on tour.
She ranked at number seven for first serve points won (71.6%), fourth for serve points won (63.5%), and fourth for service games won (78.7%). She is posting equally impressive numbers in 2019.
Somehow, Barty chalked up these numbers despite being just under 5’6.
When she is competing against the likes of Petra Kvitova, Naomi Osaka, Kiki Bertens and Karolina Plisokva, who range from 5’11 to 6’1, it makes these stats all the more impressive.
With their longer reach, their increased likelihood to clear the net due to their height and with their greater power and geometry of their serve, taller players can take the game out of their opponents’ hands.
Barty does not have that luxury, yet is one of the game’s best servers. She is excellent at picking her spots and has a superb kick serve to boot.
There is no question the 23-year-old is going from strength to strength.
In 2019, the Aussie has risen to a career-high ranking of five, and claimed her first Premier Mandatory event by winning the Miami Open in March.
She’s earned six top-ten wins this year and she reached the quarter-finals in two consecutive grand slams.
Clay is not her favourite surface, but she has a fantastic opportunity to reach her maiden slam semi-final.
Barty has dropped just one set so far, and that was against Serena Williams’s conqueror, Sofia Kenin.
Fourteenth seed Madison Keys stands in her way, in what is a very winnable match tonight.
Even if she falls at this upcoming hurdle, Barty is a breath of fresh air in the game.
Too often we see identikit players who effortlessly crunch the ball from the baseline, but the moment a hint of variety is on display, they become discombobulated.
So win or lose, Barty is great for the game. If only there were more players like her.