As Roland Garros approaches, Linda Pearce looks at Ash Barty on clay and what about her game makes the surface one of the Australian’s best.
As an understated yet outrageously gifted young Queenslander named Ashleigh Barty was emerging as the great Australian tennis talent of her generation, it was on the historic Wimbledon lawns that the then 15-year-old first came to international notice by winning the 2011 junior title.
Even then, however, four-time grand slam doubles champion and former top 25 singles star Paul McNamee was among those who identified clay as potentially even more fertile ground for the player who in 2019 would go on to famously break Australia’s 46-year singles drought at Roland Garros.
It’s a judgment McNamee stands by, and one reinforced by Barty’s 11-2 record—including the Stuttgart title and a finals appearance in Madrid ahead of a quarter-final injury retirement in Rome—on European dirt in the lead-up to Sunday’s opening round of the French Open.
“I knew she would be good on clay, with the sliced backhand and her versatility, and her ability to get free points on her serve, and she slides very well, so it was always going to be a really good surface for her,’’ says McNamee.
“It’s just she had this love of grass and this Wimbledon fascination. But with her game, she is more likely to win more Roland Garros (titles) than Wimbledons, in my opinion.
“There’s no question she’s capable of winning Wimbledon, including this year, but she has a game that’s so versatile. To be honest, I think hard court is her ‘least best’ surface, because [players] can hit through her; the slice sits up a little bit more.
“I think clay and grass, the natural surfaces, are her best, and it makes sense: she’s such a natural person, she’s got these assets that the other [players] don’t have, including, I don’t know, the sixth sense. She’s got that intangible magic, Ash Barty.’’
McNamee is not just a student of clay court tennis, he is also a published author on the subject. The 66-year-old’s latest book, Welcome to the Dance, is subtitled Master Clay to Master Tennis, which is a philosophy he adopted only after the life-changing experience of first playing in Paris as an 18-year-old.
Barty was 23 when she defeated Marketa Vondrousova to win the Coupe Suzanne Lenglen two years ago, seeded eighth and having never progressed beyond the semi-finals of any previous Tour-level event on clay.
She skipped last year’s COVID-delayed event, and thus the chance to defend her title, to remain safely at home in Ipswich, while practising regularly on clay at the Brisbane Tennis Centre and tweaking the grip on her double-handed backhand.
Yet despite having played far more on hard courts during her career while retaining an enduring love of grass, McNamee believes some of the world No.1’s key weapons are enhanced on the surface that—despite Sam Stosur’s remarkable consistency in reaching at least the semis on four occasions from 2009-2016—has been by far Australia’s least successful in the past 40 years.
Exhibit A: slice, which McNamee says is the most under-rated shot in tennis. “The sliced backhand is so effective on clay, because it’s the only surface, really, where you can drop shot. On hardcourt it’s a waste of time, and on grass you don’t get many chances to drop shot, but that’s obviously second in the pecking order.’’ The Spanish masters, most notably 13-time Roland Garros champion Rafael Nadal, also pioneered the forehand drop shot using the extreme western grip as the game has evolved.
Barty, says McNamee, is “this rare beast on the women’s tour” who can hit either a drop shot or a slice from her one-handed backhand without opponents knowing what’s coming. What counts as a skill few of the double-handers in the women’s game can boast also regularly befuddles opponents who see it so infrequently. “They have no idea how to play against her sliced backhand and it just dismantles them.’’
Exhibit B: sliding, or specifically, controlled sliding which McNamee says is also something only the minority of WTA players have mastered. Barty’s, he says is “top notch, she’s a real bona fide slider, and that counts on a clay court”, where it helps players to remain balanced and recover more quickly for the next shot.
Exhibit C: serve, and it’s about ramping up the speed and aggression and ignoring the myth that the smarter tactic is to instead aim for consistency via a higher percentage of balls in.
“That’s what people believe, but in fact the great clay courters go for more on clay on their first serve, because free points are more valuable on a clay court than on any other court, because there are more rallies.
“So if you can get a free point either with an ace or they can’t get the return back, that’s such an asset on a clay court, that’s gold, so you need to serve bigger on a clay court than a hard court because you get this beautiful reward of a free point.
“If you just hit an 80% first serve on clay, it is coming back; on a hard court, not necessarily. And Ash Barty’s serve is so accurate. She is the Roger Federer of women’s tennis. Roger Federer has got laser-like accuracy on his first serve, and so does Ash Barty.’’
Another Australian tennis identity, Todd Woodbridge, also nominates clay as both the toughest surface in general and Barty’s best, despite grass appearing to be the more obvious answer when her peerless volleying skills add to an impressive all-court profile.
“She can get overpowered on grass,’’ Woodbridge said on Nine. “On the clay she gets the ball into different zones: above the shoulder with the heavy spin, and down low on the slice, and it’s even more effective than what she can do on the hard court.’’
All of which—right arm injury permitting—points to another run deep into the second week of a grand slam that the Australian Wimbledon-lover least expected to win.
Until, well, she so memorably did. And just possibly might, again.