When Serena Williams was world No.1, she was a force of nature. Playing her was like standing in a storm in your undies. You were completely exposed, completely vulnerable and had nowhere to hide when the blast hit.
Ash Barty is more dry lightning than thunderclap. She doesn’t have the serve of her predecessor, which knocks you into the first row, nor the forehand that punches holes in racquets and self-confidence. She is athletic, but without the all-round power of the formidable Williams.
Like Williams, as world No.1 Barty has something other players don’t have. For Barty, it’s the slice backhand. Not one other woman on the tour regularly plays a slice backhand.
It’s a strange shot to have as your point of difference when for generations a handful of the best players – think Steffi Graf for one – all had the slice backhand to keep the power players honest.
But then the power players got the upper hand, racquets got bigger and the best slicers started to drop it and use double-handed backhands to counter-punch the big hitters. The slice faded away.
Now, like mullets and moustaches, the slice is back. Unlike mullets and moustaches, the slice is a welcome stylish return.
The backhand slice is not only Barty’s point of difference, it is her most significant point of advantage. She has other assets, her forehand is strong, and her serve can find corners and the lines with unnerving accuracy. These are things other players have, albeit without her clinical accuracy or court craft. No one else, though, has a backhand like Barty.
As a result, they are typically clueless to combat it.
Barty’s coach Craig Tyzzer laughs about it. He walks past the practice courts the day before a Barty match and sees her opponent frantically practising how to return slice backhands. They’re like kids opening schoolbooks for the first time the night before an exam and expecting to pass.
”I think it is a point of difference. The fact that they don’t see it that often and then have to come up against it [is an advantage],” Tyzzer said.
“It’s actually quite funny. When you see who Ash has to play, you see them out there practising someone hitting a slice backhand to them. It’s probably a bit late, the day before, to try to get that right. If you haven’t practised it enough now, you’re probably not going to get that right.
“We’ll mix it. She’ll vary it according to who she’s playing. Against some players it makes no difference whatsoever. She doesn’t use it tactically as much against certain players, but she will mix it in according to who she’s playing and what she needs to get out of the slice as well.”
Former world No.1 Lindsay Davenport, who won three grand slam titles, said the absence of other women playing the shot was extraordinary and gifted Barty a distinct advantage.
“She uses it as such a great weapon because she uses all the slices. She uses it offensively, she uses it defensively. She also uses it to draw her opponents in,” Davenport said on the Tennis Channel.
“Right now in the WTA there is no one else that uses a slice, so for so many of these players they get out on court and they are not accustomed to seeing that.
“In every other generation there has been multiple players and almost always in the top 10 or 20 of players that use the one-handed backhand, that had that variety. In this generation it is only Barty right now.
“So I think a lot of the players are caught off guard. They are not sure how to handle it – do I get up and hit it with two hands? Do I just slice it back?
“And Barty is just a master, as soon as she sees a player go to their own slice she immediately starts going to her left looking for a forehand, she knows she is going to have time then.”
Former champion Martina Navratilova, winner of 18 grand slam titles and a reputation as one of the best players of all time, said Barty’s slice confused opponents not only because of the change of pace but the doubt it created in their mind. Critically the shot also denied them the chance to attack.
“It is the change of pace, change of spin and change of height of where they [opponents] like to hit the ball,” Navratilova also said on Tennis Channel.
“The easiest slice to hit is the cross-court and it goes to the two-hander most of the time because she is playing right-handed and they just don’t want to hit this one [down low], they don’t like to go inside the baseline. They like to hit it up here at waist high, two feet or three feet behind the baseline, but now they are three feet inside the baseline, but the ball is at their shoelaces. So they can’t be offensive. They can’t play their game
“She doesn’t allow them to play their game.”
Madison Keys, whom Barty beat on Thursday night, said ahead of that match that the slice allowed Barty to control the pattern of points.
“The reason Ash’s slice is so good is just because she’s able to hit it really no matter how big the ball that’s coming in, which I think not a lot of other women in this era have been able to do.
“I think she does such a good job at resetting the point constantly, being able to get back to neutral off of a ball. You can’t do a ton off her slice because it comes in so low.
“I think that’s obviously one of her weapons because then she can set it up to look for a forehand, then she can kind of start controlling the point.”
The fact of having the slice backhand becomes a thing in itself that gets in opponents’ heads.
Keys was acutely aware of it heading into Thursday night; Barty barely played it in the first set. She played a double-handed backhand more often than the single and counter-punched Keys’ greater strength. The occasion of the semi-final might have overwhelmed Keys, but Barty tactically also looked to have wrong-footed her with holding the slice back.
When she did use it in the second set, Keys was pretty good at combatting it. At one stage Barty played three slices in a row and Keys won the point with a passing forehand down the line.
Nine commentator Alicia Molik said the slice exemplified the fact Barty was more well-rounded than other players.
“It’s possible for Ash to hit every shot from every portion of the court. What sets her apart is she can do everything in the playbook,” Molik said.
“She constantly changes up tempo and she uses the slice to do that. It’s not something women on tour are used to.
“As much as her slice I think she is an impeccable serve. There are some big servers, but they do not always hit their spots like Ash does.”
Tyzzer said Barty’s slice backhand had probably become more effective because she was using it less – like on Thursday night. She has started using her double-handed backhand more often in recent years, but then she knows she has this slice she can pull out to change the game up … or slow it down.
“When we first started, she probably used the slice a lot more. She probably uses the slice more effectively now.
“I think Ash has other attributes. Her forehand is actually a weapon. Her slice will set her up a lot for her forehand. Her serve sets her up a lot for her shots as well. It’s all of those elements for me.”
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