Dominic Thiem battled back from the verge of defeat to down world No.1 Novak Djokovic in a three-hour, three-set semi-final classic at the ATP Finals.
“A miserable opening set for Ash Barty.” “Her tennis was way, way below par today.”
Much to my chagrin, I found myself agreeing with the above sentiments from Eurosport commentator Simon Reed.
Barty insisted she had not been swept away by the burgeoning support from millions of Australians as she aimed to emulate Wendy Turnbull’s run to the final way back in 1980.
Make no mistake, however: the top seed was tight in her semi-final loss to 21-year-old American Sofia Kenin.
Being world No. 1 and the top seed at your own slam is a lot of pressure. Barty didn’t admit it, but she is only human.
The semi-final was there for the taking and she blew it. Two set points came and went in the first set. The run of points from 6-4 up to losing the tiebreak 8-6 felt like a microcosm of the match – a potent concoction of tentativeness, good play from the opponent, a drop in execution and then questionable decision making.
At 6-4 up in the tiebreaker Barty hits a hard, deep return which is met with a three-quarter pace response just past the service box. Instead of going after the ball, Barty tamely slices the ball midcourt to hand the initiative back to Kenin.
The American’s deep, angled backhand catches the Aussie off guard and her backhand slice fizzes into the net.
The second set point was a case of too good. Kenin hits a line-licking backhand off a Barty second serve and then wrong-foots her for the forehand.
At 6-6, Barty goes for a drop shot when Kenin is a yard from the baseline in the centre of the court. The 14th seed gets there with plenty of time, sends a slice deep into Barty’s backhand and the subsequent lob is expertly driven away by Kenin.
Finally, at 7-6 down, Barty tries to hit a forehand return with a vapour trail behind it, but it merely thundered into the net.
Where Kenin showed sedulity and tenacity, Barty became more pusillanimous than I can remember in a long time.
The same missed opportunities came and went in the second set.
At 40-15, when Barty had two set points, she surrendered the initiative to Kenin by slicing the ball instead of going after it.
Barty possesses the best slice backhand in the women’s game but these slices lacked the scalpel-like precision she normally wields This gave Kenin plenty of time to wind up and crunch backhand after backhand before running the Aussie ragged and winning the exchange.
On the next set point, after a topsy-turvy rally, the Aussie had an opening on the forehand, but she blazed the shot several feet long. Kenin then won the following point with a superb backhand on the stretch and Barty subsequently missed a relatively easy drive forehand volley to level the set at 5-5.
The following two games from ‘Sonya’ were the most impressive of the match, with a hold to love and a clinical returning game to seal a 7-6 7-5 win in an hour and 45 minutes.
Barty was edgy throughout the match in the crucial moments. Kenin was more consistent and handled the pressure points far better. Kenin also targeted the Barty backhand, which certainly paid off.
The statistics do not tell us much. Barty had a better winner to unforced error ratio than her opponent, hitting 33 winners and 36 unforced errors to Kenin’s 15 winners and 26 unforced errors.
Both had four break-point chances, Kenin was 2/4 and Barty was 1/4, and the American won just three more points in total. Perhaps the most telling statistic was Barty hitting just 50 per cent of her first serves in.
Despite this match potentially being ‘the one that got away’, her ebullience and jocund nature shone through like nothing else after it.
Barty brought her 11-week-old niece, Olivia, to the post-match press conference to maybe help with the questioning. The 23-year-old cut a cheery and laid back figure. She spoke of the importance of ‘perspective’, which brought back memories of Boris Becker saying in 1987, “I lost a tennis match; nobody died”.
This is one of many reasons why Barty is great for the game.
She lost her semi-final, but she will be back, probably even better. Hopefully the wait for an Aussie champion in Melbourne won’t go on for much longer.