Ash Barty’s victory over Maria Sharapova was memorable not only for the accuracy and style of her performance, but also for an 11-game run of erratic play from Sharapova, 10 of which Barty won.
Something you learn watching Maria Sharapova is how close competitive severity gets to comedy on a tennis court. She may be the most deliberate player in history, even in defeat.
Bart and soul: The path to the Australian Open final is opening up for Ash Barty after the Australian outgunned Russia’s Maria Sharapova in the fourth round.Credit:AAP
You could not say that anyone in Rod Laver Arena was laughing when Sharapova took the first set with a sequence of heavy and accurate ground stokes.
In fact, it appeared that things might proceed as feared by Australian fans, and that Barty’s grace would be displaced by Sharapova’s power and quality.
But during the third game of the second set, Sharapova framed a simple, slow-moving ball on her forehand side that seemed to recalibrate the entire match, and for 10 games thereafter nothing she hit was without an element of mystery.
Sharapova’s timing vanished, but like all professional winners she’s a tough and neurotic player who uses method and routine to produce results, even when results are unwilling.
Resilient: Barty battled hard to overcome Sharapova, and utilised her slice to great effect.Credit:AP
At the end of the second set, in which she won a solitary game, Sharapova disappeared for an unusually long break, perhaps to steady herself. It left Barty performing dry serves in the shade, and the crowd to its shared suspicion that she was being gamed by Sharapova.
When finally she did appear, the delay was ineffective. Sharapova produced five consecutive faults, each of them with their own personality.
One dipped early in its flight and landed soundlessly against the bottom half of the net.
The next was sent by the racquet frame sailing almost to where Barty was standing.
And as she went on, some of her first serves hit the let chord twice before becoming faults, and some of those faults became second serves that hit the let chord twice. And during those strange minutes you could not have located a more languid and relaxed figure inside the stadium than Ashleigh Barty.
Seal of approval: Primer Minister Scott Morrison congratulates Ash Barty on her win.Credit:AAP
The comedy in a sport as serious as tennis is in routines that remain unchanged, even when things temporarily unravel. You see it in other sports, too, when a fast bowler loses his run-up, or a golfer studies his terrain before hitting a two-foot putt six feet past the hole. In tennis, it is always the serve, the set piece of play that can break a player’s heart or save them from embarrassment.
Ash Barty’s first serve has saved her whenever it’s been needed thus far.
Barty’s serve is representative of her game generally, in that whatever it lacks in speed it compensates for with accuracy.
No answers: Maria Sharapova struggled to deal with the consistency and variety of Barty’s serve and groundstrokes.Credit:AAP
Relative to the gallery of long-boned Czech players, such as her quarter-final opponent, Petra Kvitova, Barty is small and somewhat narrow-shouldered.
She rarely serves anything faster than 175kmh, but has produced more aces than any other player in the tournament, including Serena Williams.
It is a trick almost as subtle and effective as her slice, something that has no doubt produced hundreds of what tennis inaccurately calls “unforced errors”.
After the match Sharapova joined the chorus of players and commentators in commending Barty’s slice, which did not abate over three sets in its accuracy or frequency.
It is a low flying, blow-dart of a thing that forced Sharapova to constantly scoop forward in the court and, in doing so, lift the ball within range of Barty’s forehand.
“She had a great slice that stayed quite low,” Sharapova said, “I didn’t do enough with that ball.”
Despite Sharapova’s serving difficulties, and the trouble she had with Barty’s slice, she stayed in the match admirably, so admirably that she was only two points away from levelling the final set at 5-5.
Barty, and the crowd watching her, seemed to catch at the throat for 10 minutes after her serve was broken by Sharapova, and her final service game was one of the most tense and enjoyable in recent memory.
Barty does everything quickly, and with a minimum of excess words or movement.
There were three consecutive challenges during her final servicegame, each ball landing within a centimetre either side of the centre line.
It was telling of the state of her mind in this tournament that she could double fault while serving for the match, and then proceed to win with an ace.
Others are beginning to think Barty can win this tournament, and it seems that she does too.
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