It’s Ashleigh Barty vs. Karolina Pliskova in Wimbledon Final
WIMBLEDON, England – The Central Court is back at full capacity as England gradually eases its restrictions in the event of a pandemic. Fans who happily drink Pimm’s in their expensive seats certainly had two very different games for their money on Thursday.
The first women’s semi-final, between Ashleigh Barty and Angelique Kerber, was a craft fair, full of finesse and cunning and often long exchanges. The second semi-final, between Aryna Sabalenka and Karolina Pliskova, was heavy metal: thunderous serves, big bang returns and screams of Sabalenka.
But the goal was the same for everyone involved, and when the silence finally returned to what tennis was closest to a temple, the Wimbledon finalists were current world No.1 Barty and a old number 1, Pliskova.
Barty, who beat Kerber, 6-3, 7-6 (3), will be aiming for his first Wimbledon title on Saturday. Pliskova, who has rallied to defeat Sabalenka, 5-7, 6-4, 6-4, will be aiming for her first Grand Slam title.
While Barty and Pliskova both have excellent serves, the finale will also be a contrast of styles.
Pliskova, 29, is a 6-foot-1 angular identical twin from the Czech Republic with relatively flat groundstrokes and a straightforward streak that has hired and fired many coaches during her professional career.
Barty, 25, is a 5-foot-5 Australian with a strong build and diplomatic skills who has worked long term with Craig Tyzzer as a coach and who tends to use words like “us” and “our”. “referring to his tennis matches. While Pliskova likes to hit her shots quickly on the rebound, Barty relies on a heavy spin. She has a lightning forehand, but her signature shot is a one-handed chip backhand that stays low on any surface but is especially difficult for her opponents to dig into the grass.
The blow was decisive in Barty and Pliskova’s only previous clash in the final: Barty won the match in straight sets at the 2019 Miami Open, on the verge of winning the year-end No.1 ranking.
“I think she has an extremely difficult game to play,” Pliskova said. “It’s going to be tough on grass because of his slice and just his overall game.”
Pliskova observed that Barty can make his opponents “play bad”, but that was certainly not the adjective that summed up his semi-final with Kerber: a catchy duel full of clean brilliance, frequent changes of pace and defense of world class.
Barty and Kerber crouched down, knees sometimes scratching the grass, and Kerber, the 2018 Wimbledon champion, took the upper hand in the second set before being broken in love when she served at 5-3. Barty went from there, winning the first six points of the tiebreaker as Kerber faltered before recovering to earn three straight points. But the surge came too late to prevent Barty from making his first singles final at Wimbledon.
“I wasn’t sure that would ever happen, honestly,” Barty said. “I think you have to keep getting into position. I think Wimbledon has been an incredible learning place for me.
She won the women’s title here in 2011 at the age of 15, which clearly shows that she had the potential to become a star. But while his all-court play seems well suited to the grass – the skidding backhand, sounding serve, clean volleys – it took him 10 more years to make a serious attempt at the title.
In 2018, she was beaten in the third round by Daria Kasatkina. In 2019, a few weeks after winning her first major singles title at Roland Garros, she was upset in the fourth round by Alison Riske. Last year Wimbledon was canceled due to the pandemic.
“Probably 2018, 2019 was one of my toughest weeks to play,” Barty said. “I learned a lot from these two times. I think most of the time your greatest growth comes from your darkest times. I think that’s why this tournament has been so important to me.
She ran the clock efficiently after retiring in the second round at Roland Garros last month with a hip injury.
“To be honest it was going to be touch-and-go,” she said. “Everything had to be perfect to give me a chance to play painlessly and to play knowing that I could trust my body. “
Barty has seemed more talented than gritty at times during her career, prone to big game nerves, but she has shown great resilience against the reborn Kerber. Barty smiled before taking the balls to serve in Game 1, and although she double-faulted on the opening point, she took a quick lead and maintained a high level.
“I think the most important thing on these grounds is probably the ability to adapt,” she said. “The courts change dramatically from start to finish of the event. Learning to play and adjusting the way you play as the grass changes is an important part. It is getting faster. It becomes more difficult. It’s also about keeping it simple, going out and taking advantage of the opportunity.
Barty stopped enjoying the tour at one point, taking an extended hiatus from 2014 as she struggled to cope with the pressures of travel and constant expectations. She also spent most of 2020 at home in Australia because of the pandemic, skipping the US Open and the French Open. But she has embraced the return to competition even though it has meant months away from home due to quarantine restrictions in Australia.
Now only Pliskova is opposed to her becoming Australia’s first women’s singles champion at Wimbledon since her mentor Evonne Goolagong Cawley won in 1980.
Pliskova, eighth seed, stands tall. She had to play and serve boldly to withstand the onslaught of second-seeded Sabalenka on Thursday. Sabalenka is perhaps the greatest hitter in women’s football, with a relentless style similar to Serena Williams and with faster first and second serves on average than some of the best men.
But Pliskova managed to break the serve early in the second and third sets, then hold onto the lead despite Sabalenka’s restlessness and muscle. Pliskova’s service isn’t as fast or as loud as Sabalenka’s, but it was the most effective weapon. She won a greater percentage of points in both first and second serves than her Belarusian opponent. Together they combined for the most aces ever in a women’s match at Wimbledon – 32 (18 for Sabalenka, 14 for Pliskova).
Pliskova remains the most successful active player to fail to win a Grand Slam singles title. She came closest to the 2016 US Open, when she upset Williams before losing to Kerber, then ranked No.1 in the final.
“My second final, the second time I play against a player who is number one,” Pliskova said of her Saturday clash with Barty.
Sascha Bajin, Pliskova’s new coach this season, has quite a resume. He has long worked as Williams’ hitting partner, and he coached Naomi Osaka when she won her first two Grand Slam singles titles. But he hasn’t had the same results with his recent employers, and Pliskova has struggled this year to Wimbledon, dropping to 13 in the standings. On Monday, she will return to the top 10, possibly as a major champion.
“When we started our partnership together, we weren’t as successful as she maybe wanted or expected,” Bajin told me Thursday. “You are only measured by the success you have. It doesn’t matter if I’m a nice guy, whether I’m funny or not, she’s not going to keep me if we don’t get results. I couldn’t be happier right now, but we have one more to go. “
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