More People Should Know the Name of Ashleigh Barty, the New French Open Champion
There is a picture of Ashleigh Barty from when she was a child, wearing a little tennis dress and holding a tiny trophy. Her round face has chipmunk cheeks, and the racquet held over her shoulder is four or five times the size of her head. The picture made the rounds of the Internet after Barty returned to tennis, in 2016, following a brief hiatus, during which she played professional cricket. It surfaces, inevitably, whenever she makes news, because it is extremely cute. The picture might even be better known than her style of play. And it’s misleading, really, because, although Barty projects a youthful kindness, her game is fully mature, and not sweet at all.
Barty has an unusual game. Many players, even great ones, play shots. She plays points. Many players move from side to side. She moves up and back, high and low, and plays with pace and spin. She has one of the best slices I’ve ever seen—not a changeup, a shot to give herself time and reset the point, but a nasty skid with speed. Her forehand, too, can be scary. Gifted with good hands, she can pick up the ball off the back line, or, given more time, hit it heavy with topspin. On Saturday, she faced Markéta Vondroušová, in the French Open final, and she played a nearly perfect match—hitting with depth and power, using her big kick serve, anticipating Vondroušová’s drop shots, and using a lot of touch herself. She displayed a ruthless calm that must have unnerved her nineteen-year-old opponent, who was playing on the biggest court at Roland Garros for the first time in her life. Barty had the match in hand from the start, and won it easily, 6–1, 6–3.
Barty has long been a favorite of Aussies, who admire her style, her old-school forthrightness, and the fantastic variety of her game. But elsewhere she has been relatively overlooked, despite being the W.T.A.’s leader in match wins this year, making the quarter-finals of the Australian Open, winning the title in Miami, and having an excellent clay season. That has something to do with the popular emphasis placed on slam results, but, as this year’s Roland Garros made clear, there is another factor: it’s hard to pay attention to things that are difficult to see.
Someone on the East Coast of the United States who turned on the television on Saturday morning to watch the women’s final would have seen, instead, the semifinal between Novak Djokovic and Dominic Thiem. That match, which started on Friday, had been held over, and, as it continued, the women waited, their own start time T.B.D. On Friday, the men’s semifinals had pushed the women’s semifinal matches, which traditionally take place on Roland Garros’s biggest court, Philippe Chatrier, onto the second- and third-biggest courts instead. And they had to start time at 11 A.M. (5 A.M. Eastern Daylight Time). The matches were fantastic, but, with their diminished setting and unpopular time slot, they were sparsely attended. In the U.S., they were not on network TV. The men’s matches had been ticketed separately, and bad weather had complicated things; the tournament was clearly in a bind. Still, the French former champion Amélie Mauresmo was not alone in calling the scheduling decision a “disgrace.”
“I know you guys want headlines on this, and you want me to say something really juicy,” the women’s semifinalist Johanna Konta said, when asked about the scheduling. “What is tiring, and what is really unfortunate in this, more than anything, is that women have to sit—you know, athletes, female athletes—have to sit in different positions and have to justify their scheduling or their involvement in an event, or their salary, or their opportunities. And I think to give time to that is even more of a sad situation than what we found ourselves in today in terms of the scheduling.”
People have long pushed for equal prize money and prime placement on show courts for the women; the argument always made against these things is that the men’s game has bigger stars. This isn’t always true—Serena Williams is more popular in the U.S., at least, than any men’s player right now, with the possible exception of Roger Federer. But, even when it is the case, it is partly because of the decisions made by those who run the game: people won’t want to watch when they don’t know what they’re missing. Barty has a big game, a fantastic backstory, and now a French Open title. She is only twenty-three. If given the chance, she’ll be famous for much more than an adorable old picture. But will that chance be given?