The best tennis players have an ability to make the obscenely difficult appear as little more than a mindless swish of the racquet. When Ashleigh Barty steps out onto court, there are no extravagances or excesses of emotion indulged. Rarely, in fact, does it ever seem like she’s gasping for breath or having to break stride. The way Barty dismantles her opponents has become an unmistakable art, as if taking a freehand sketch to their weaknesses and then attacking each one with all manner of brushstrokes. Perhaps, it’s due to her unassuming modesty or the way she quietly transformed herself into the world’s best player, but if her matches don’t always necessitate explosive highlights, it’s because she’s executed that game plan to perfection and left her opponents with nowhere to turn.
In the early stages of a hasty quarter-final on Centre Court, that’s what happened to Alja Tomljanovic. The world No 75 had produced one of the most gripping performances of the tournament against Emma Raducanu yesterday evening, the sheer sound of her booming groundstrokes rattling the roof. But against Barty, Tomljanovic’s shoulders dropped on the baseline, her eyes gazed dejectedly at the grass, knowing her power could not make so much as a dent. What was supposed to be a tricky test had been reduced to an exhibition and Barty swatted forehands of all varieties – flat, looping, slicing and driven – into the corners at will. Her victory was inevitable and often made to look plain easy - even if it was anything but.
This 6-1 6-3 victory will go a long way to proving why Barty is the favourite to win the title, and should eradicate the memories of stutters she has previously suffered from at Wimbledon. Before getting too carried away, though, there are a few caveats that should be taken into account. Due to the late start of Tomljanovic’s match with Raducanu, Barty had benefitted from almost seven hours extra rest by the time they took to Centre Court on Tuesday. She also had the virtue of knowing her inferior opponent inside out from countless hours practising together in Australia, and it is no secret that Barty’s multi-faceted game is effectively kryptonite to Tomljanovic’s one-dimensional power.
But if that does at least slightly temper the landslide, it should be no slight on Barty’s devastating performance. Her shortcomings at Wimbledon have been a curious quirk of her career, especially when considering how tailor-made her game is to grass. There was an air of apprehension in her opening match but she already has the experience of winning a grand slam, and that calibre of player knows the value of peaking late. The trick is to acclimatise, conserve, and then raise the bar beyond your opponent’s reach at the pivotal stage of the tournament.
That was clearly the case here as Barty mercilessly broke Tomljanovic’s serve six times in a match that barely lasted over an hour. There was such wonderful variety to her shot-making, but it was the forehand that breezed down with effortless conviction, an avalanche of 23 winners smothering Tomljanovic’s five. Even when not finishing points, it was the faultless metronome that dictated them, sapping Tomljanovic’s energy and spirit as she was dragged helplessly along the baseline.
In recent years, supremacy on the women’s tour has been like a roulette wheel, spinning between any number of competitors, particularly at the grand slams. But Barty has been the closest to grappling it and there is a more common reality of what now stands between her and the Venus Rosewater Dish. Angelique Kerber, who has already lifted the title in 2018, came into the tournament in tremendous form on grass, and inflicted a defeat on Karolina Muchova – 6-2 6-3 – that was no less comprehensive. It is a match worthy of being the final itself, but not one that Barty will treat any differently. She has steadily raised her level to the height that makes her the world No 1, and against Tomljanovic she made it seem almost effortless.