French Open 2019: Ashleigh Barty beats Vondrousova for first singles Major and No2 ranking
“For the last fortnight, the stars have aligned for me… I never dreamt that I’d be sitting here with this trophy”
How many would have predicted that the last two women standing come final Saturday would, before this tournament, have won a combined total of just three matches at Roland Garros? And yet that is what came to pass.
No8 seed Ashleigh Barty, still only 23 years old, won her first French Open match at 17, went on to take two years away from tennis to play pro cricket, and returned to the tennis tour exactly three years ago.
Now the 5ft 6in Australian had notched up more wins in 2019 than any of her colleagues, had gone from a ranking of 623 in 2016 to No3 next week, having won her first Premier Mandatory in March, and if she should win this final match, would become world No2. Yet a fortnight ago, Barty counted just two match-wins at Roland Garros.
The trajectory of 19-year-old world No38 Marketa Vondrousova was just as remarkable. She arrived in Paris with only one win at the tournament, also at the age of 17, yet this season, she had stacked up a tour-leading 15 wins on clay, including the final in Istanbul and the quarters in Rome, among a tour-leading 27-5 since the Australian Open.
And by reaching her third final of the year here, she would rise to No16, and to No11 should she wins the title.
The two women would surely relish a capacity crowd for what promised to be a hugely entertaining match between two of the most creative players in the draw, and especially after their semi-finals were forced to the second and third courts after rain delays and scheduling problems. But what could the packed Philippe Chatrier expect?
Certainly youth: It marked the youngest final at a Major since the 2008 Roland Garros when Ana Ivanovic, 20, beat Dinara Safina, 22.
And certainly variety and flair. Despite her modest stature, Barty had hit 35 aces so far the tournament, while the crafty left-hander Vondrousova had beaten four seeds to reach the final and she had not lost a set along the way.
On paper, Barty was the favourite, the owner of much more experience—though still so young herself—and the Australian had won both their previous meetings. However, they had never played on clay, and Barty has made little secret of her preference for grass.
Indeed the Australian prodigy won the junior Wimbledon title at the age of 15, and went on to hone her skills with plentiful doubles both before and after her cricket hiatus. She won the US Open with Coco Vandeweghe last year, and made the finals of all three of the other Majors, too.
And Barty’s all-court ability, her athletic movement and speed, her touch and power, got her off to a perfect start. She held firm on her opening serve and then took advantage of the Czech teenager’s hesitant play to break immediately. And that power-pack serve swiftly took Barty to 3-0.
Vondrousova soon tried out her signature drop shot, but Barty is fast, and she made the play with ease. The Czech tried it again, and again Barty made the dash for a winner and another break point.
The Australian deployed her superb sliced backhand to keep her opponent pinned down, and then switched up the pace on her forehand: break point again. It was smart, crafty, rounded tennis, and it got her another break, 4-0.
Barty had to fight long and hard in the fifth game, as Vondrousova seemed to find her confidence and track down the diagonals. She counter-sliced, and it paid off for the Czech, who finally got a break and onto the scoreboard. Yet the Australian can ring the changes, and now used the drop shot herself.
With the change of ends and the dramatic change in wind—still such a factor in Paris this weekend—the Czech made too many errors, and handed the serve straight back. Barty took control at the front of the court, smashing a winner. A forehand down-the-line winner completed another break, 6-1, with 13 winners to two.
And Barty continued to conduct the match in the second set, breaking immediately. She came to the net, made touch volleys and overheads, and held through break points to make it 2-0. She was already up to 11 from 14 points at the net.
Vondrousova hung in to hold in the third game, saving break points, and pulling off a couple of fine forehand winners. And on her next serve, she held to love with a perfect drop shot, but she needed to break Barty to stand a chance. However, Barty calmly continued to hit the lines, skim the net, hold to love, 5-3.
And she needed just a few more moments of magic, with one concluding smash, to claim her prize: She had broken the teenager to seal the win, 6-3, in just 70 minutes.
Barty raised her arms towards her box, but then the enormity of what she had achieved seemed to hit her: She crouched down, rested her arms on her racket, and bowed her head.
This modest and so-well-like young woman has already come through many challenges in her short career: the loneliness of the tour at such a young age, and the smart decision to walk away to do something different until she was ready. And all the while finding joy in team sport—her cricket and multiple doubles success. Now, she admitted, she is ready to embrace her second career on the tennis court.
“I don’t even know if I’d be sitting here talking to you if I didn’t step away [from the sport in 2014]. It’s obviously a part of my life that I needed to deal with, and I feel like it was the best decision that I made at the time, and it was an even better one coming back.
“For me, I needed time to step away, to live a normal life, because this tennis life certainly isn’t normal. I think I needed time to grow as a person, to mature. I left all of my options open—I think it was just a natural progression for me coming back to tennis… Tennis will always be a big part of my life.”
There is no escaping the spotlight now for this young, mature and articulate champion. With the No2 ranking, she will be the highest-ranked Australian woman since Evonne Goolagong Cawley in December 1976. Cawley has been a mentor to Barty along the way, and the new star admitted that she had sought out her name on the trophy: This was also Cawley’s first Major.
Barty concluded: “It’s been an incredible couple of weeks, that’s for sure. I think any time I can play my brand of tennis, I know that I can match it against the best in the world. For the last fortnight, the stars have aligned for me.”
As for the new No16 in the world, Vondrousova, after the disappointment of her loss, had time to reflect on what she had achieved this week:
“I think I’m proud of myself at everything, because I’m just 19 and I won six tough matches. It was amazing two weeks for me, and I’m just really proud that I was in the final here.”
As Barty said, her time will also surely come.