Barty looms as grasscourt threat

Published by Matt Trollope

Ash Barty in action against Jana Fett in the second round of the Aegon Open in Nottingham; photo credit Getty Images for British Tennis
Australian Ash Barty, 12 months into her comeback, has returned to the site of the tournament that kickstarted her career resurgence. In a wide-open women’s field, is she a contender for Wimbledon?

One year ago, Ash Barty was taking the first tentative steps in her comeback to singles.

She’d played her first event – a $50,000 ITF grasscourt draw in Eastbourne – and progressed to the semifinals as a qualifier.

The following week, she headed to Nottingham, her first tour-level tournament since the 2014 US Open, which preceded a 20-month burnout-induced break from singles during which she tried her hand at a professional cricket career.

At Nottingham, Barty was again forced to come through qualifying before advancing to the quarterfinals – at the time just her second-ever appearance in the last eight at a WTA event.

Barty, then ranked No.623, pushed No.1 seed Karolina Pliskova all the way in a 7-6(2) 7-6(7) loss, another impressive performance in a 2016 grasscourt season that saw her finish with a 12-3 record.

A year on, Barty is ranked No.88. And she’s back in the quarterfinals of Nottingham after a 55-minute, 6-2 6-1 thumping of Croatia’s Jana Fett on Wednesday.

It followed a three-set victory over Tatjana Maria in the first round, a match in which she displayed some rust and fatigue after playing in the Roland Garros doubles final with Casey Dellacqua just two days earlier on vastly different clay.

“My preparation for the grass-court season was a 30-minute match warm-up (Tuesday) morning,” Barty revealed in an interview with The Tennis Journal.

“We didn’t get a chance to hit yesterday, obviously. We travelled and just needed a day away from the courts. But for me it was no stress. Win or lose, it was about getting a match on the grass. I’ve always played well here, I’ve always loved coming to Nottingham and love the city itself, and the courts are always in great condition.”

The Australian’s rapid rise has been one of the stories of the women’s tennis season in 2017.

A junior Wimbledon champion at just 15 years of age back in 2011, many pundits had the talented youngster earmarked for stardom until her hiatus had many fearing she may be gone from the sport for good.

Yet since she’s returned a stronger, more mature and more motivated player, Barty has proven a revelation.

“The past year has truly been phenomenal. I know as a tennis player you can go through some roller-coasters with the good and the bad, and I don’t think I’ve really had a bad trot yet – which is credit to my team, as well,” she told The Tennis Journal. “We spent the time earlier last year setting the foundation with training.”

In the wide-open landscape that currently characterises the women’s tour, her improvement and form bodes well for Wimbledon. It’s a venue at which she’s achieved plenty of success –  as well as her girls’ singles title in 2011, she reached the doubles final with Dellacqua two years later – on a surface she nominates as her favourite.

Her forehand and serve have developed into far bigger weapons since she emerged on the circuit as a teenager and her ability to now wrest control of a point and strike clean winners is mesmerising. Yet she seems to have lost little of the touch, technique, net skills and tennis brain that saw respected Australian coach David Taylor once liken her to Martina Hingis.

In the first phase of her career, Barty’s lone WTA quarterfinal came in Kuala Lumpur in 2013; that campaign ended in a 6-2 6-0 thumping by Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova.

Yet in the second segment – one she referred to last year as “2.0” – Barty has reached the last eight at the Taipei WTA 125K event, in Kuala Lumpur and Strasbourg, and twice at Nottingham. In Kuala Lumpur she went all the way to the title for her first WTA trophy, and in January produced her best ever Grand Slam showing with a third-round run at the Australian Open.

Her success has come on a variety of surfaces, from the hard courts of Melbourne and Malaysia to the clay of Strasbourg.

Yet back on grass, she’s feeling even better about her game.

“It’s been a big year so far, and this is a really exciting season for me now on grass. I’m comfortable on it, and it sort of felt like home out there again today,” she said after her win over Maria.

“I think this year’s still about consolidating, really. We’d love to finish the year still inside the top 100, looking to edge closer to the top 50. If we can crack it, great, and if not, we’d like to consolidate a little bit.”

Given the strides she’s managed to take in the past year, don’t bet against her going higher.

And this grasscourt season could be where the talented young Aussie truly makes her move.

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