Australia is cheering its latest superstar, Ashleigh Barty who, on Saturday, won the women’s singles title at Roland Garros.
I think I have always enjoyed playing on clay, I just never get to play much on it, and I think certainly these last two weeks, last fortnight has been incredible. Ashleigh Barty
Her 6-1 6-3 defeat of Marketa Vondrousova from the Czech Republic may have looked academic but it was the culmination of an incredible journey by the young Queenslander as she lifted the Coupe Suzanne Lenglen high, the first time an Australian has got her hands on it since Margaret Court in 1973, and the first Grand Slam singles event won by a female tennis player since Sam Stosur won the US Open in 2011.
The victory was made all the sweeter because of the circuitous route that brought the 23-year-old Barty to this point in Paris.
Barty knew she had needed a break from tennis, from the pressure and expectations, from the week-in, week-out grind, so she stepped away after the US Open in 2014 and, having hung up her racket, switched to the Women’s Big Bash League in cricket.
She gradually recovered her love for tennis and, thankfully, 3 years ago, decided to come back to the sport.
Her trajectory since has been on the rise, finishing 2016 with a ranking in the 300s and rocketing back into the limelight in 2017 with an end-of-year ranking of 17.
Last year was all about consolidation, while Barty started 2019 in fine fashion, reaching her first Grand Slam quarter-final before succumbing to Petra Kvitova in the Australian Open final eight.
Now she has made it all the way and will be ranked No 2 in the world, deservedly so.
Barty, a Ngarigo woman who grew up near Ipswich in Queensland, follows in the footsteps of Evonne Goolagong Cawley as an Indigenous woman who has succeeded in sport, but although women have come a long way since the 1970s, they are still often treated as second-class citizens.
Traditionally, the women’s semi-finals get pride of place at Roland Garros on the Thursday, with the men’s taking place on the Friday, but the backed-up schedule following Wednesday’s washout prompted organisers to bump the women to the lesser show courts while the men occupied Court Philippe-Chatrier.
Adding insult to injury, the two semis were played early, and at the same time on separate courts, splitting spectators so that each match had sparse attendance.
It sparked a sexism row that had the WTA complaining and even drew comment from Roger Federer, who sympathised with Britain’s Johanna Konta after her loss on the 5,000 seat Court Simonne-Mathieu.
“You make it all the way to the semis, and you get put on the third-biggest court at 11,” said the great Swiss. “It’s a tough one. When I saw the schedule, also, I was a little bit, like, surprised.”
A victim of that decision was Vondrousova, who should have been playing her very first match on Chatrier on Thursday but, instead, she had to make do with a short hit on the big show-court early on Saturday morning ahead of the final.
The Czech’s rise to fame is pretty remarkable too.
Aged 19, Vondrousova had yet to drop a set heading into the biggest match of her young career, avenging 2 clay court losses to Petra Martic and Johanna Konta en route to Saturday’s finale.
After finishing runner-up to Barty in her first Grand Slam final, Vondrousova leaves Paris with her head held high.
Despite the occasion, Vondrousova revealed that she ‘didn’t really play nervous’, and was full of praise for Barty, against whom she never managed to get a foothold.
She lost the first 4 games, but Vondrousova soon got on the board, although Barty remained in front, breaking serve for a 3rd time and holding comfortably to take the opening set, striking 13 winners to just 2 from the teenager.
“I think I have always enjoyed playing on clay,” observed the Aussie. “I just never get to play much on it, and I think certainly these last two weeks, last fortnight has been incredible.
“I said to my team at the start of the year I was just worried about falling over, and I can successfully say that we got to the end of the clay court season and I did not fall over once. So I’m pretty pumped with that.”
In a women’s draw filled with surprises, Barty faced only one seeded player, No 14 Madison Keys of the US, along with the women who eliminated Serena Williams and defending champion Simona Halep.
The last two Roland Garros champions, Halep and Jelena Ostapenko, recovered from a set and a break down to win their final, and Vondrousova found herself in much the same situation as she quickly fell behind 2-0 in the second set.
As the Czech youngster tried to settle into her serve games, it was Barty who was first to championship point at 5-3, reversing a 40-15 deficit to capture the title off a triumphant overhead put-away.
In all, Barty played what was, in her own words, ‘the perfect match’, striking a total 27 winners to 26 unforced errors, came to the net 20 times – winning 15 of those points – and dropped just 4 points behind her second serve, getting broken just once in the match.
“Evonne [Goolagong] sent me a text a couple days ago and said this was her first Grand Slam,” she said. “I spotted her name on the trophy. I’ll give her a call a little bit later on.
“There were players that were dominant and that I looked up to. I think in particular that was Evonne. When I got a little bit older, I began to realise what she achieved and just how remarkable that was.
“But there are so many players, so many amazing players, gracious players, that come on and have this style and this flair that I always tried to emulate a little bit when I was a kid.
“My coach always used to bring me back and say, ‘We’re creating our style.’ I think that’s probably one of the most magical things that’s happened to me.”
As for Vondrousova, she was philosophical in defeat.
“I think she was just too good today. I think she played an amazing match. I didn’t have too many chances today. Yeah, I think she just gave me a lesson today,” she said.
“It was also windy, so it was a bit different today. I think she didn’t let me play my game today. I think she was just better at everything today.
“She’s playing too good. She’s mixing things up. She has a huge serve, so it’s all very tough to play against. I didn’t really feel good today because she didn’t let me play my game, and it was really tough.”
Despite the result, Vondrousova nonetheless managed to look on the bright side, and acknowledged her body of work for the fortnight.
The 19-year-old beat 4 seeded players en route to her first major final, did not lose a set in 6 matches, and is set to break into the Top 20 in the world rankings on Monday to a career-high World No 16.
“I played my first Grand Slam final, so it’s a good thing,” she said with a smile. “I think I’m proud of myself at everything, because I’m just 19 and I won six tough matches.
“It was amazing two weeks for me, and I’m just really proud of myself that I was in the final here. I had my family here, so it’s still amazing for me.
“A lot of people texted me. I was all over Czech TV. It was kind of strange for me. I was in the final, so I think it’s a big thing now. I’m just enjoying myself.”
The left-hander will celebrate her 20th birthday on 28 June shortly before Wimbledon begins, and she will also be a seeded player the next time she steps foot on court at a Grand Slam.
“I can’t really believe it still because it’s really, it’s a huge thing for me,” Vondrousova said.
“I think it’s gonna change my life now, but I’m just trying not to think about this and just trying to focus on myself.
“It’s gonna be strange, because I’m going to be a seed at Grand Slams. A lot of things are gonna change now, but I just can’t wait to get back home and see what’s gonna happen.”
Taking control right from the start of the French Open final and never really letting go, the No 8-seeded Barty capped her return to the sport by snagging her first major championship, probably the first of many.
“I never closed any doors, saying, ‘I’m never playing tennis again,’” Barty said. “For me, I needed time to step away, to live a normal life because this tennis life certainly isn’t normal. I think I needed time to grow as a person, to mature.”
Why she came back three years ago?
“I missed the competition. I missed the one-on-one battle, the ebbs and the flows, the emotions you get from winning and losing matches,” said Barty, who jumps to a career-best No 2 in the rankings on Monday behind Naomi Osaka.
“They are so unique and you can only get them when you’re playing and when you put yourself out on the line, and when you become vulnerable, and try and do things that no one thinks of.”
That describes how she approaches each point, looking for just the right angle or speed, understanding where an opponent might be most vulnerable at any given moment.
After using her slice backhand, topspin forehand and kick serve to do just that to Vondrousova, she called it a “kind of ‘Ash Barty brand’ of tennis.”
Barty raced to a 4-0 lead and then held on, showing that she learned her lesson after blowing a 5-0 edge in the opening set of her semi-final victory a day earlier against another unseeded teenage sensation, 17-year-old American Amanda Anisimova.
“An absolute roller coaster,” Barty called it.
Her coach, Craig Tyzzer, said the two of them huddled with Ben Crowe, who helps Barty with the mental side of things, and they had a ‘really good discussion about it’ to make sure she’d avoid that sort of trouble in the final.
“I played the perfect match today,” Barty said.
Pretty close to it, particularly at the beginning. It took all of 70 minutes to wrap up things.
Pleasingly, Barty receives the same prize money as the male singles champion, €2.3 million, but the same is certainly not true of many other sports where wages for women are usually a fraction of those earned by the men.
Even in tennis, male stars still enjoy an advantage in sponsorships but for Barty, her opportunities are just opening up as our sport’s latest Grand Slam champion.