More than ever, Ash Barty is playing her tennis with the eye of the tiger.
A lot has changed for her in the last 12 months but very little of it has happened by accident.
Case in point, yesterday’s match with Petra Kvitova. There are very few players in women’s tennis who pose as many questions when in form, and the two-time Wimbledon champ had smoke coming off her racquet for the first half an hour of yesterday.
This time last year, that challenge was too much for Barty and she wilted to lose their quarter-final match up in straight sets, 6-1 6-4.
Twelve months later and it was a different player out there neutralising the Czech star; one armed with a fitter body and a stronger mind.
Partly that can be put down to another year of experience and maturity for a player who is still only 23.
However, it’s ignorant to underestimate the work that’s been put in behind the scenes to transform Barty from a very good player to a champion. A player who is starting to look every bit the best in the world, not just the world No.1.
Respected commentator Sam Smith watches as much women’s tennis as anyone and what she took out of yesterday’s match was Barty’s tremendous ability to wage “psychological warfare” and win.
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Like most left-handers, Kvitova loves serving down the middle on the deuce side of the court and out wide on the advantage side to swing the ball away from her opponent.
To blunt that weapon, Barty made a big adjustment to her normal return position, daring Kvitova to change her tactics and serve to the open court.
It was a tactic that knocked Kvitova off balance and it ensured that even when she broke Barty, she was unable to maintain her advantage.
“I think the biggest thing is that she actually played the mental game really well, so she got into Petra’s head and she really took away Petra’s first serve, she completely diffused Petra’s best serve, which is a huge weapon,” Smith told Wide World of Sports.
“Lefties love going wide serve ad court, T serve deuce court, and Petra wasn’t able to do that because she’d be serving straight at Ash and then she missed the other one, so that was just psychological warfare and Barty won that side of it as well.”
Barty has always been considered a smart player as well as a skillful one, but her ability to think on her feet and make adjustments on the run is so developed now that there’s rarely a match-up that she can’t spin to her advantage.
In tennis, as is the case in most sports, the brain is an athlete’s most important muscle and Barty works on it every day with her performance mindset coach Ben Crowe, who is a key part of Barty’s team. He’s one of the ‘we’ that Barty always refers to in interviews.
Still, Barty wouldn’t be the player she’s become if she hadn’t done the physical work she’s done to become among the fastest and fittest players on the tour.
Barty wins long, intense rally in the tiebreaker
Smith reckons Barty was able to turn the first set around and win it in a tiebreaker thanks to her mental game but perhaps just as tellingly, Smith was backing Barty to win the next two sets even had she lost the first one, due to her superior physical prowess.
“There was a massively long point in the tiebreaker and she scrambled everything, defended like she was on a squash court,” Smith recalled.
“She turned it around, got to 3-3, so got to even at the change of ends, and I think that point won her the opening set. Don’t forget she also had a set point against her in that tiebreak and then she just drove it all the way through. I don’t think I ever saw Petra making a comeback in the second.
” … I think she’s done the daily mental work to become much stronger but I think when you push yourself physically as hard as she does in the pre-season, with all the training she does with (her strength and conditioning coach) Mark Taylor, that makes you stronger.
“I actually think had she lost the first set, physically she’d come through in a decider because I think she’s in great shape now.”
The result of all Barty’s hard work started to bear fruit in 2017 and flourished into a plentiful harvest last year, as she went from a top 15 player to French Open champion and world No.1.
For the first time this summer, we’ve seen it close up as she claimed her first WTA tour title on home soil in Adelaide and is now the red-hot favourite to claim her second Grand Slam title on Saturday night.
But if she does manage to lift the trophy, don’t be foolish enough to think it’s happened by accident. Her sky-high confidence is the product of blood, sweat and tears – the “double bounce”, as Smith puts it.
‘We’: Secret to Barty’s success
“With age she’s more mature, she won a lot of matches last year, she won more matches than anyone else, and what I liked is she finished the year so strongly, winning the WTA Finals,” Smith said.
“She did all that because of all the work she’s done beforehand but you get a double bounce, it has a chain reaction, so you get more confidence from the wins and the work you’ve done, that helps you win tough matches and gives you even more confidence.
“That’s what’s made Barty such a tough competitor. It’s not just one added string to her bow, it’s this whole body of work.”