Roland Garros 2019 will be remembered mostly for the awful weather and equally awful second-week scheduling at the tournament, which both reinforced the need for the roof which will soon come to Court Philippe Chatrier — overdue, but better late than never.
Yet, bad scheduling is nothing new in tennis. What really is new is that Ashleigh Barty has become a major champion, on what she acknowledges is her worst surface, the surface she has had to learn to embrace in her career.
What is also new is that a player with a true all-around game with world-class volleying skills has won a women’s major title.
Yes, Serena Williams does a lot of things well. So does Angelique Kerber. So does Naomi Osaka. So does Simona Halep. Yet, Barty’s own collection of skills stands apart — it is a different mixture with different combinations and patterns. For that matter, Barty’s opponent in the Roland Garros women’s final, Marketa Vondrousova, is also not a very commonplace presence on tour — she is a breath of fresh air and, quite clearly, a player many opponents will have to learn to adjust to. She flummoxed a number of veterans nearly 10 years older on her way to the final.
Variety has emerged more and more on the WTA Tour over the past few years, but Roland Garros 2019 was a coming-out party for variety. This wasn’t just Magdalena Rybarikova making the 2017 Wimbledon semifinals and then getting blown out by Garbine Muguruza while Venus Williams and Jo Konta slugged from the baseline in the other semifinal. No, this was something different: Barty and Vondrousova, two supreme merchants of variety, reached a major final, with Barty — the player more in command of her arsenal — winning.
This was variety’s big statement in 2019.
At the start of the tournament, I wrote this piece on Anna Karolina Schmiedlova’s failure on a huge point late in the second set of her near-upset of Naomi Osaka. The thesis of the article was intended for coaches more than players. Coaching every shot counts, because players never know when they will have to hit a certain kind of shot. They need to be ready to hit it.
If the job of a coach is to prepare the player for anything and everything that might happen in a match, teaching every shot is central to the art of coaching. If Schmiedlova had full confidence in how to hit a half-volley or offensive slice, she might have beaten Osaka. Coaches need to realize that.
After seeing Ash Barty win Roland Garros, however, I would imagine that various WTA players — not just coaches — can see how valuable it is to be able to hit every shot in the book.
Barty IS the ultimate exemplar of this tennis virtue — not doing one thing so much better than everyone else, but being able to do EVERYTHING with considerable competence, effectiveness and consistency. Barty, a player most naturally at home on grass, just won a major on clay a few months after winning a Premier Mandatory on hardcourt. She is in good position to challenge Naomi Osaka at the top of women’s tennis, chiefly because she can claim three-surface mastery, whereas Osaka has yet to figure out the two organic surfaces on tour.
The WTA community could see that whereas Vondrousova’s lefty topspin and different angles confounded her first six opponents in France, Barty’s noticeable comfort level with every kind of shot — not just volleys or slices as opposed to backhands and forehands, but variations within and among those shots — enabled her to absorb all that lefty spin, plus Vondrousova’s drop shots.
Barty had an effective response to hard, flat accelerations by Marketa. She had an effective response to deep topspin shots which tried to expose her backhand. She had a response to the droppers. She was unruffled from the backcourt, and equally calm when drawn inside the service box. No matter where she stood on the court, she was in command of what she was doing.
Barty does have a strong serve, but it’s not the Serena Williams shutdown hammer or the Naomi Osaka crunch-time bomb. Barty doesn’t impose one shot on opponents. She imposes the totality of her game and her hand and racquet skills, which enable her to hit shots from various contact points.
She can bend her knees low — much as Kerber does — to pick up blistering returns at her feet. She can come over the slice to hit it offensively. She can carve under the slice to play it defensively. She can get air under her forehand to reset points, and she can pummel the forehand inside out to the ad corner to win points, as she did against Vondrousova.
Barty showed that her made-for-grass assortment of shots could win Roland Garros. Any current WTA pro, or any current junior who is studying how to develop a first-rate professional career, would do well to absorb why and how Ash Barty has won a major championship and has positioned herself to enjoy a highly fruitful career at age 23.
Naomi Osaka is one rising star, but only on one surface. Barty’s game can travel across more surfaces and isn’t confined to one theater of competition.
Young players: Learn how to hit every shot. This is the path to year-round relevance, not just seasonal supremacy, on tour.