Ash Barty accentuated the manic in Manic Monday when she began her match against Alison Riske with four aces. Before their first changeover, she had hit six. But the promising start slowly slacked off, as Riske elevated her willingness to pound away at the Aussie’s defenses. In a word, Riske was relentless.
“If there is a grass court specialist out there, this is the woman,” the commentator said on ESPN+, after the last ball was hit and Barty quickly departed Court 2, sometimes known as the “graveyard” court.
The top seed had lost 3-6, 6-2, 6-3.
“I’m so proud of myself, of the way I handled myself,” Riske told ESPN, immediately coming off court. “[I’ve] been ready to battle… it’s shown in all my matches.”
Barty initially seemed to have figured out Riske’s game, assaulting her weaker backhand side. Barty was a wall, holding her court position as though she was a member of a royal family protecting land that had been in the family for centuries.
However, problems popped up as the second set progressed. Barty’s first-serve percentage fell off, in part brought on by her inconsistent ball toss. Riske sensed the frustration from her opponent.
“Riske is doing a really good job of (gaining) variety and depth. Her error count is good, too,” ESPN+ pointed out.
Without a strong first serve, Barty lost concentration as though an inevitable outcome had been painted in her mind and she couldn’t look away.
Her first-serve percentage dipped to 40, when it “had been near 60% for the tournament.”
Riske didn’t need an engraved invitation to step on the grass and show fans her love of this surface, her favorite. She kept balls deep in the court, moving Barty everywhere and then being in the right spot to return a winner.
Although ranked in the mid-50s now, she has always been a tough opponent on grass. When she first started on tour, her first 13 matches were played on grass; she won all of them.
“[Grass] brings out the best in me,” Riske told ESPN. “I think my game is well suited for it. I love coming forward and coming to the net. Wimbledon is such a special place. It’s been so special. I’m so grateful.”
Barty held on for a period of time, seemingly mimicking Riske’s patterns with an intention to draw an error from the American.
Riske would hit a deep forehand, Barty did the same. Riske would hit cross-court. Same from Barty, their shots millimeters from lines as Riske’s squeaky “Eye!” pelted fans’ ears every time she swung out.
Barty was on her heels, though, at the mercy of Riske, as though there were no other options. The spark had left the racquet and mind of Ash Barty; the Roland Garros “champion’s bag” of court tricks zipped up tight.
“Honestly I had the confidence, if I managed my serve,” Riske said. “I had to play aggressive and take it to Ash.”
Over the last eight days, Riske has spent over 13 hours on court, according to Sport360 on Twitter. All her singles matches have gone the distance, three sets, and she’s spread her talents to women’s doubles and mixed doubles as well.
In her prior round she upset Belinda Bencic, the 13th seed, using the same convincing strategies and tactics.
“Inspirational from Riske,” ESPN’s commentator yelled.
Barty’s solution was to try to take control slowly. She wanted to stop feeding Riske the pace she loved and move the ball around, giving her different looks and spins. She aimed the ball directly at Riske, coaxing the American to go for too much. But Riske’s unconditional commitment to getting every ball back remained intact.
Riske was a game from the quarterfinal, at the baseline with the most difficult of challenges on any player’s plate: serving out the match.
The commentator wondered: “Can she keep her mind at the most difficult moment in her entire life?”
The question was answered convincingly.
“Ultimately, just to have overcome the matches the way I have and getting to the quarterfinals is amazing,” Riske said, still breathing heavily from the match. “But the way I’ve been fighting is amazing.”
The 29-year-old American has nothing to lose now, as she awaits Serena Williams, who swept away Carla Suarez Navarro on Monday, 6-2, 6-2.
At the start of Manic Monday, three American women stood primed for a run to the quarterfinals. Two got through. They will both meet in Tuesday’s first quarterfinal. Riske welcomed the challenge Serena Williams will provide.
“Bring it on,” Riske said, laughing, before she left her impromptu chat with ESPN,