It only made sense that after a year’s absence, Wimbledon would have a story-book ending. Fifty years after perhaps the most beloved figure in WTA history, Evonne Goolagong, won the first of her two Wimbledon crowns, Billie Jean King recalled that Goolagong “would come into the room and say ‘G’Day, mate, how’s everyone doing?’ Everyone wanted to be her friend. She was fascinating to play. She was so elegant, and played with such grace.”
With her lyrical name and ethereal game, the so-called “girl from the bush” had an enchanting presence. One of eight Aboriginal children of an impoverished itinerant sheep-shearer, tennis’ “Sunshine Supergirl” recently recalled the fairy tale origins of her career: “When I was nine, I read in a cartoon magazine a story called ‘The Princess.’ It was about a young girl who was found and taken to this place called Wimbledon, where she played on a magical Centre Court, and there she eventually won. Every time I went back to hit a ball against the wall, I’d pretend I was there. And every night I would dream about playing on that magical court one day. Then, the day before my first Wimbledon match, the head of Dunlop Sports took me to Centre Court. There was no net – only dead silence. And I just looked and thought, ‘I’ve actually seen it. My dream has come true.’”
Today it was Ash Barty, who also has an Aboriginal heritage, whose dream came true. Just 5’ 5’’, the 25-year-old Aussie had won the Wimbledon girls’ championship ten years ago, then suffered from depression, retreated for over two years to the joys of cricket, and then returned to win the 2019 French Open before she again went off the tour. After a long isolation from COVID, Barty set off in March on an eight-month tennis road trip like few others. She won the Miami Open, but then a season-threatening hip injury sidelined her for weeks.
Clearly her tennis journey has had as much variety as one of her masterful points. And Ash, a humble, low-key Aussie, embraces her journey with relish and a low key, “It’s just a game” perspective. “I’ve had ups and downs and everything in between,” Barty noted, “and I wouldn’t change one day or one moment.”
Coming in cold to Wimbledon, her game was scratchy. She opened Centre Court with an emotional three-set win over cancer survivor Carla Suarez Navarro and then, with some ease, marched to the semis, where she dismissed three-time Slam winner Angie Kerber.
But in the final, she would face a stern test.
Since losing the 2016 US Open final and dropping from the No. 1 ranking she’d held in 2017, Pliskova’s career was a fine off-Broadway production, staged just outside the spotlight. “The queen of aces” won many a tourney, was No. 2 in 2019, and, since 2015, she’d had, after Simona Halep, the second best run in the top ten. But, she’d failed to capture any of tennis’ glory titles, and was said to be the best player to have never won a Slam.
Still, she came into Wimbledon having lost in the first round at two Wimbledon warm-ups. Her ranking had dropped to No. 13 and she was behind 2-5 in the first set of her opening match against Tamara Zidansek. Then, her coach Sascha Bajin recalled, something clicked. “I saw something change. She got up off the chair with a different look in her eyes.”
Despite never having gone beyond the fourth round at Wimbledon, she marched to the semis without dropping a set. There she took down the mighty No. 2 seed, Aryna Sabalenka. Now she would draw on her powerful strokes to put Barty in her place.
But tennis is not as much a game of thrones as it is a game of nerves. Never mind that Kara was the product of the Czech Republic’s proud tennis history. Or that her compatriot, Barbora Krejcikova, had, despite a panic attack, just won the French Open. And never mind that Pliskova was a battle-tested 12-year veteran who’d won 16 titles and had already played in a Slam final.
But Wimbledon doesn’t check out resumes. Centre Court didn’t care. And today Wimbledon struck with a fast, merciless fury. For eleven miserable minutes the weight of the final crushed the Czech. Tight and unable to hit out, her feet frozen, this was the nightmare start of all nightmare starts. Her service toss seemed to head to Wimbledon village, her serve was timid, her groundies wild. “It looks like Barty is taking a walk in the park,” observed broadcaster Phil Studd. Pliskova who had only been broken four times up to the final, lost her first three service games.
Czech Jana Novotna collapsed at the end of her 1993 final. Now, at the beginning of her debut Wimbledon final, Pliskova was stuck in a horror show. Pundits flashed on Kara’s Italian Open final from just seven weeks ago, where she was humbled 6-0, 6-0 by Iga Swiatek. She lost the first 14 points and went down 0-4.
Grim and solemn, the big 6’ 1” woman with the big game was in big trouble. She’d recall, “It was not a nice start. I didn’t want to be there.” She flashed on her Rome nightmare and thought, “If I can get a point, it would be much better…This cannot be possible. I just [need to] find a way.”
She did. Pliskova was just too good to be throttled this badly. Her pride, her muscle memory and the grit she’d gained from a lifetime of battles kicked in. Somehow she emerged from her debilitating free fall to tennis hell.
At least she finally managed to relax. Her big serve found the corners. Her languid power began to punish. She offered a wry, “I will not be humiliated” smile. Her fever broke and she broke Barty too, then held her serve for the first time. Yes, Ash somewhat tidily collected the first set 6-3 and broke to go up 3-1 in the second.
But the table was set for a classic battle: a shorter, faster, more nimble player with a genius slice backhand that sets up her forehand vs. a tall, lean powerhouse whose serve can dominate and whose forehand pins. Barty tried to control the center. She forced Kara to the corners. But for all her creativity and imagination, for all her forehand winners, her sure volleys and error-free overheads, she could not pull away. The pair traded spurts of momentum. Pliskova gave us a beautiful stab volley winner and evened the second set.
Barty broke back to go up 6-3, 6-5 and was serving for the match. But then nerves struck. Her groundie errors and a double fault threw a lifeline to Kara, who en route to her convincing second-set tiebreak win, thrust her well-tattooed arm to the sky.
As Chris Fowler noted, “Short-term memory loss is such a priceless thing for an athlete.” So Barty, the gritty warrior, wisely just hit the reset button. With her feathery touch, slice-and-dice backhand, steady patience and spot-on decision-making Ashe made clear why she’s called a chess master in a tennis skirt. Pliskova is no pawn. But she’d soon be Czech-mated. Her errant backhand gave Barty a 6-3, 6-7, 6-3 win. Tears soon flowed all around. After Barty’s ascent to her Friends Box went awry, she joked, “I probably should have taken the elegant route.”
What was elegant was Barty’s reflective, post-match analysis. “[This] was the most incredible feeling I’ve ever experienced on a tennis court…I’ve worked so hard…to try and achieve my goals and dreams. To be able to do that today was incredible.”
As for her nation, she noted, “Australians, we’re sport mad, aren’t we? We love it. It’s born and bred…Being able to be a very small part of that is something I always dreamt of,[to] try and create a legacy…a path for young girls and boys to believe in their dreams.
“To achieve my biggest dream…The stars aligned for me over the past fortnight…That it happened to fall on the 50th anniversary of Evonne’s first title is absolutely incredible. Evonne is a very special person in my life. She’s been iconic in paving a way for young indigenous youth…Being able to share that with her and… to create my own path is really exciting. Her legacy off the court is incredible. If I could be half the person Evonne is, I’d be a very, very happy person…
“I’m a firm believer in ‘Everything happens for a reason.’…Being able to learn from both the good and bad moments equally is really important…From every experience, there’s an opportunity for growth. Over the past fortnight, I’ve had massive, massive amounts of growth.
“Wimbledon is where tennis was born, essentially…This is where so many hopes and dreams were born…I’ve just tried to live by the values that my parents instilled in me. It’s more important to be a good person than it is [to be] a good tennis player…Being a good human being is absolutely my priority every single day.”