For a professional player, Ash Barty has played surprisingly little tennis on clay.
The Australian will play for the first time on red clay in 2018 at the Madrid Open on Sunday, and beyond that is scheduled to play clay-court tournaments in Rome, Starsbourg and Roland Garros.
This will be the first time ever that Barty has played a full clay-court season. She has contested just 18 singles events – taking into account both WTA and ITF tournaments – on the surface during her entire career, dating back to her first professional outing at the $25,000 ITF Ipswich tournament in April 2010.
Since her first-round loss to Alize Cornet at Roland Garros in 2014, Barty went almost three years without a singles match on clay, far longer than her 19-month hiatus from singles.
It’s perhaps no coincidence that she’s slightly apprehensive when approaching matches on the dirt.
“If you come up against a great clay-courter they can make you feel very vulnerable, very quickly,” Barty told Tennismash.
“I think you look at a lot of the Europeans – there are girls who can move around the court well, know the geometry of the court, know how to use the ball. But then there are others who still have the ability to hit through the court and hit you off a clay court.
“My trip is about two-and-a-half months (away from Australia), so it’s not a short one. I think for me the toughest bit is getting through the clay. But then for me the light at the end of the tunnel is when we get on the grass courts, and when I get on the grass I feel great.”
“I’ve very much looking forward to the grass but I’ve gotta get my socks dirty a little bit first."
— WTA Insider (@WTA_insider) April 3, 2018
Barty’s love for the lawns is well documented, a fact that first emerged when she won the Wimbledon junior singles title at just 15 years of age in 2011. She won two ITF titles on grass in 2012, reached the Wimbledon doubles final in 2013 with Casey Dellacqua, and, in her first full season back on tour in 2017, advanced to the WTA Premier-level final in Birmingham.
Despite grass-court tournaments accounting for a minute percentage of total professional tennis events, Barty has managed to play almost as many singles tournaments on grass as she has on clay.
Yet the 22-year-old, widely regarded as one of the most naturally talented players in the game, possesses weapons that, theoretically at least, should deliver success on clay.
Australian Fed Cup captain Alicia Molik certainly thinks so. “I know it’s probably verbally not her favourite surface to talk about but she’s building on this surface and I think she has a game that completely suits it,” the former world No.8 said.
The facets of that game include a biting kick serve, a heavy forehand, a versatile backhand, excellent point construction and nimble footwork. Her serve and forehand, in particular, evoke shades of compatriot Sam Stosur, a player who for the past decade has excelled on the surface.
“I’m sure if you asked Sam at the age that Ash is now if she thought she’d have as successful career on clay (as she has), I’m not sure she’d have been as positive about it at that age as well,” Molik said.
“I think the more experience you have, the more you realise that the surface change doesn’t mean that she needs to change her game.”
Barty is beginning to embrace the surface and understands that she can flourish on it. She has, after all, won seven of her past 11 clay-court singles matches.
Last year she pushed eventual French Open champion Jelena Ostapenko to three tight sets in Rome qualifying – an extraordinary match-up for that stage of the tournament, considering where both players are now – before advancing to the Strasbourg quarterfinals and the Roland Garros doubles final with Dellacqua.
Last month Barty won two matches on the green clay courts of Charleston to reach the last 16.
“I feel like I’m getting more comfortable – I felt great at Charleston,” said Barty, who beat Sofia Kenin and Tatjana Maria before falling to Anastasia Sevastova.
“I think for me it’s still about getting my footing and getting used to playing a full clay-court season, learning a few more tricks of the trade on clay. This is an opportunity this year to play an almost full clay-court season and try and do a little bit of damage.
“I’ve never played Madrid before so it will be a good experience. If you’re going deeper in the tournament you tend to play later and later, so hopefully that will be me and I’ll have a good week.”
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