Ashleigh Barty is the center of so many debates in tennis these days. Is she a deserving No. 1? Is she the best player in the world, instead of Naomi Osaka? Is she the best player on clay? Is she the favorite for Roland Garros?
Few players on either tour seem to elicit the divided reactions Barty gets. I have wrestled with this particular tension point and have had a general sense of why it is the case… but I now have a more precise understanding of it after Barty fended off Iga Swiatek, 7-5, 6-4, in the Madrid Open Round of 16 on Monday.
Yes, Barty is not a flamethrower. She doesn’t throw 100-mile-per-hour fastballs. She doesn’t have a Hammer of Thor serve belonging to Serena Williams. She doesn’t have Osaka’s enormous baseline power. She isn’t as fast as Sloane Stephens, and she can’t hit those bending two-hand stretch backhands Angelique Kerber can pull off. We know this, and we know that’s part of why Barty’s presence as World No. 1 isn’t easy for a lot of fans to digest. It just doesn’t “seem right” for a lot of people, and I get it.
Barty is not an imposing tennis player. She doesn’t silence Maria Sharapova with a barrage of aces the way Serena would. She doesn’t hit opponents off the court the way Osaka or Garbine Muguruza can when they are locked in.
Barty’s secret sauce as World No. 1 is not that she imposes her game. It’s that she refuses to be imposed upon by opponents. It’s not what we generally expect No. 1 players to be like, but it’s Ash Barty’s way, the way which works for her.
Swiatek unraveled late in the first set and for much of the second set against Barty. If you were to tell me that Swiatek lost this match more than Barty won it, I wouldn’t put up much of a fight. That’s a reasonable conclusion.
Yet, after Swiatek got a 3-0 lead, what happened? Barty fought back. This is who she is. This is what she does.
Ash Barty won’t win a baseline slugfest with Osaka, and she doesn’t have the high ceiling Iga Swiatek does. Swiatek has the more electric shots and overall firepower.
Barty, though, is a genius at defusing an opponent by mixing speeds and spins, playing with more margin, and picking her spots. Barty will beat you not by pummeling you to death, but by prying open the court for an angled winner, or making you choose an overly ambitious shot, or by disrupting your rhythm. You don’t feel like you’re suffering, but after getting a quick lead and watching Barty calmly adjust in response to a scoreboard deficit, you look up at the scoreboard and see that you’ve lost in straight sets.
One part of being a professional athlete is to know how to hit every shot, what we generally refer to as “technique.” Absolutely, that’s a central part of any pro athlete’s life.
Yet, while the “how to do this?” piece is essential to the athlete’s job description, the other part is no less important: “WHEN to do this?”
Barty — much like Roger Federer — had to learn over time when to hit specific shots, how to construct points, and how to generally manage matches.
Once the light went on, Barty has retained that awareness and has subsequently produced the most consistent tennis on the WTA Tour, a brand of tennis which holds up on all three surfaces, not just one.
Clay is where Iga Swiatek’s tennis comes alive. Hardcourts are where Osaka flourishes.
Ash Barty doesn’t have a comfortable native habitat, but her gift is that she adjusts to the surrounding circumstances and finds a way to be comfortable within them.
She doesn’t impose, but refuses to be imposed upon.
This is really the heart of the Barty No. 1 puzzle for many tennis fans: Barty’s endless adaptability makes her the best 52-weeks-per-year player on the WTA Tour. No one would doubt that she is the most consistent player around. Yet, her lack of imposing tennis means that against an opponent with more pure firepower — at a major tournament — Barty can be outgunned. This is why Barty has only one major and Osaka four… which elicits the questions about Barty’s No. 1 status, and the sense that it doesn’t somehow feel right.
We can see that Naomi Osaka has three more major titles than Ash Barty. We can see that Barty is a better 52-weeks-per-year player. The Osaka way is what fans expect from a No. 1 player, but the Barty way is what actually produces a No. 1 player.
It might not be the popular or familiar path which fits central casting and global perceptions, but it’s Ash Barty’s proven formula for success.
It all feels right to me. Far more importantly, it feels right to her.
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