Sunday, June 13

Ashleigh Barty and Iga Swiatek ready to start a new era of clay dominance | Sport

TThere will be two defending champions here in the women’s draw at this year’s French Open. This is not normally how professional tennis works; When a player wins a title one year, 52 weeks later he returns to the scene of his success and does everything he can to keep it. Most fail.

However, last year, as uncertainty still swirled during the early waves of the pandemic, world number one Ashleigh Barty chose not to travel due to security concerns and because national border closures in Australia meant that he just couldn’t train with his coach. . Instead, when 19-year-old Iga Swiatek demolished the field to win his first Grand Slam title, Barty spent his days cheering on his Australian football team, Richmond, with a beer in hand.

As both players return to Paris for the first time since lifting the trophy, the perpetually unpredictable world of women’s tennis has generated a certain order. Swiatek and Barty are the two clear favorites to win the French Open again.

Before winning at Roland Garros, Swiatek had never crossed the fourth round of a slam and had only played five major tournaments. His victory was a surprising rise to the occasion and one of the most dominant grand slam races in recent memory. He did not lose a set, losing only 28 games in total.

Even the scores, including her 6-1, 6-2 dismantling of Simona Halep, don’t exactly convey how her level transcended that of her opponents. She already owns a full game – she possesses perhaps the heaviest forehand, which can go across the court and spin up to shoulder height, but her backhand is even more reliable. She is an elite returner, but her kicking serve is already among the best. His excellent athleticism is complemented by quality manual skills.

For the past eight months, she has been accused of coping with her newfound presence as a top-level player. She has spoken of her struggles with the sudden surge of attention and obligations when it would be much easier to follow tennis. And he has often had to recover from frustration and show his growth. So far, it has.

Most recently, his return to his favorite surface didn’t go as planned. After losing straight sets to Barty in Madrid, he found himself on his way out of the third round in Rome to 38th-ranked Barbora Krejcikova. Rather than panic, he saved two match points and survived in two hours and 50 minutes.

Iga Swiatek lifts the French Open trophy after her impressive victory in 2020.
Iga Swiatek lifts the French Open trophy after her impressive victory in 2020. Photograph: Alessandra Tarantino / AP

After progressing to the final, she achieved a victory most players can only dream of: 6-0, 6-0 in 46 minutes against world number 9 Karolina Pliskova for her first WTA 1000 title.

Barty’s relationship with clay is a stark contrast. Ahead of the 2019 clay courts, he said he begins each year with a countdown to grass season. Not even a French Open title has changed his perspective. After winning the Miami Open in March, with the clay season to come, it was clear: “Don’t get me wrong, I’m still counting the days until grass season, no doubt.”

The truth is embedded in his humor. Until 2019 Barty struggled to connect with the clay, posting a 16-13 record on the surface between 2012 and 2018 without passing the second round of the French Open. His game is designed for the fastest, low-rebound courts and it is in those conditions that he feels most free.

At 5ft 5in, Barty possesses what is arguably the best serve ever produced by a short player in the women’s game and leads the WTA this year in service games won with 81%. Barty’s love of grass is also based on his preference for taking his forehand early, his low bounce, and his affinity for the net.

What allows him to play so well on clay is his tactical flexibility and athleticism. Despite her preference for controlling her matches, she is willing to step back, take a more reactive role, and use her excellent movement. She thrives opening the court on clay with angled forehand shots and her backhand punch usefully lengthens points on clay, wrecking the patience of her opponents on the slower surface.

After turning off all the question marks surrounding the validity of his number one ranking after nearly a year out with his win at the Miami Open, he has done so on clay, too. She clinched her French Open title in 2019 with just one win over one of the top 20 players, so the question remained whether her win was a reflection of supreme mental performance or was she truly an elite clay court player. budding.

In her first red clay tournament since the French Open last month, she won the WTA 500 Stuttgart tournament with three wins over the top 10 opponents. A clear and complete answer. Since then, Barty has reached the Madrid final, beating Swiatek in the third round, then withdrew from his quarter-finals in Rome while leading 6-4, 2-1 against Coco Gauff, four games before another matchup. with a much more confident Swiatek. . This year he just lost a full match on red clay.

Top seed Barty and eighth seed Swiatek will meet in the semi-final. If they get there, and there is no guarantee that they will, the hope is that these will be the makings of a new rivalry on this surface. The expectation is that regardless of how this year goes, their French Open titles will be just the starting point for continued success on the surface for years to come.

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