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ASH BARTY AND THE MEANING OF MIDSEASON TENNIS

by

Matt Zemek

Ashleigh Barty is 22, but she can’t be viewed in a linear way, because her life journey — like her journey through competitive professional sports — has not been straightforward. Barty chose a detour, having the boldness to step away from tennis and see how cricket suited her. Life is too short to leave aspirations and adventures untried, so bully for Barty. Her exploring, curious spirit is something to welcome in a person. She gave cricket a whirl, felt tennis was her home, and returned to the white-lined rectangle to resume a racquet-based career.

Many have seen top-tier talent in Barty. I am personally not convinced of that, but I do understand why people get excited about her tennis. When she is “on,” she is very impressive. I worry about her ability to consistently collect enough free points on serve to carry her through patches of matches when the other parts of her game aren’t firing. Angelique Kerber does not have a dominant serve in a larger context, but she CAN win free points on serve when she needs to. She showed as much at Wimbledon. That serve might not always be there for Kerber, but she can deliver it often enough in moments of importance. I’m not quite there with Barty, but her reflexes and hand-eye coordination make her a clean ballstriker with the instincts a top player needs. Given this relatively early stage in her evolution, I would certainly agree with the notion that she can develop into a top player.

Whether you personally think highly of Barty’s tennis potential or not, this much needs to be said: Her week in Montreal at the Coupe Rogers has noticeably improved her profile and her outlook on the WTA Tour.

“But it’s only one tournament,” some critics might say.

“But Kiki Bertens reportedly didn’t feel well in Friday’s quarterfinal in Montreal,” some might note.

I don’t dismiss those cautionary notes. They are worth taking into consideration. Nevertheless, there is something to be said for a productive week in Canada which makes a difference for Barty and how she is viewed on tour.

I use an example which can come from various other sports:

A team which was expected to be successful — maybe not hugely prosperous, but at least moderately good — struggles in the early and middle portions of its season. Roughly three-fourths of the way through that disappointing season, when the top teams clinch either a playoff berth (in American sports) or a top-four placement in an international football league, the nature of the season changes. That disappointing team, which had been trying to achieve various goals, stops playing to pursue those goals and is left to merely play out the string of games on the schedule.

Precisely when a team is no longer playing under the pressure of having to fulfill weighty preseason or early-season expectations, everyone in the locker room relaxes. The team just goes out to the pitch (or the basketball court, or the hockey rink, etc.) and rediscovers the pure experience of playing just to have fun. Players smile more, they think less, they play naturally and with the fluidity which creates superior performance. Suddenly, the underachieving or struggling team transforms into a smooth-operating machine which reels off several wins in a row.

This example is not meant to emphasize that Barty has underachieved; struggling is a better word for her, at least in big tournaments. She hasn’t yet made the second week of a major. However, her time spent playing cricket robbed her of several chances to play more major tournaments, so that detail has to be kept in perspective.

What is more instructive about the above example in professional sports is that Barty’s only previous Premier 5 semifinal (or better) before this one in Montreal came at the 2017 Wuhan Open in China.

Wuhan is an autumn tournament after the U.S. Open. Autumn tennis involves circumstances and pressures which are not like the rest of the tennis season. For the select few players trying to qualify for the year-end championships on either tour, or for the even smaller number of players trying to secure a year-end No. 1 ranking, autumn tennis is very electrically charged and important. However, for anyone else outside those small groups, autumn tennis is lower-pressure tennis. It is not part of a run-up to a major tournament. It is also played at a time of year when a number of top players reduce their schedules (Bercy is the ultimate example in all of tennis, but that is a men’s event). Players are not playing to be seeded at Roland Garros, or to earn direct entry to the main draw at Wimbledon, or to gain form for the U.S. Open. Many (though not all) of the motivations and goal-oriented incentives attached to professional tennis do not exist on the same level in autumn as they do in the middle of the season.

As but one of many examples about the difference between autumn tennis and midseason tennis, consider Caroline Garcia, who feasted on tour in autumn of 2017 but has not, to date, built on that run in 2018. Doing something of significance in the realm of “midseason tennis” matters more than doing something big in the realm of “autumn tennis.”

Translated: It always means more when a team or athlete can create a big winning streak when a season’s expectations and goals are still within reach, not at the tail-end, after many of those aspirations have no longer become reachable.

This is the meaning of Barty’s Montreal run. She hasn’t had the draw from hell, but she certainly hasn’t beaten cupcakes or tomato cans, either: Irina Begu was tough in the first round. As soon as Barty got through that close shave, she then scored decisive wins over Wimbledon fourth-rounder and Muguruza conqueror Alison Van Uytvanck. She then defeated noted giant-killer Alize Cornet (who had just dismissed Angie Kerber from Quebec). Then came a blasting of Bertens — an in-form player, even if she wasn’t feeling her best — on Friday.

Barty has never been in better position to make the second week of a major than at the upcoming U.S. Open. The gains in rankings points plus the improvement in form should both give her confidence. The knowledge that she is thriving in a midseason context, not at the end of the season when other players are in a different mental space, might help her most of all.

Image – Jimmie 48

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