After finally conquering the frayed nerves that dominated this final, Ashleigh Barty sank into the grass on Centre Court under the weight of history, drew the deepest sigh of joy and relief, and allowed the tears to flow. Fifty years after her idol, Evonne Goolagong Cawley, became the first Indigenous Australian to lift the Venus Rosewater Dish, Barty honoured history with a momentous chapter of her own, triumphing over Karolina Pliskova in a match that tattered both player’s emotions and see-sawed under suffocating pressure, until her superior class eventually settled it in three exhilarating sets.
The second grand slam title of her career, this victory was a testament to the dazzling invention that has propelled Barty to world No 1, and fulfilled both her childhood dream and the prophecies cast when she won Wimbledon’s junior title a decade ago. Combining her wickedly top-spinning forehand with skidding low slices and cunningly disguised drop shots to confound her taller and less mobile opponent, Barty had threatened to reduce the final to a procession when she won the first 14 points in succession. No grand slams are gifted easily, though, and she had to regather herself after an angst-riddled second set where double faults and breaks of serve were traded at will. Pliskova, a former world No 1 herself, also playing in her second grand slam final, dug into her well of experience, showed her fighting spirit, and seized on considerable fortune to extend the match into a third set after twice benefitting from net cords in the tiebreak.
At that point, this rollercoaster match had laid waste to all prediction, aside from the fascinating contrast of styles that dominated each rally. Eventually, though, it was Barty who reopened the vein of skill, variety and mettle that’s separated her from her competitors to close out the final set at 6-3. Having almost had to withdraw from the tournament due to injury, the scale of her achievement should not be understated. She is Australia’s first female Wimbledon champion since Goolagon’s second title in 1980. A torch has been passed on, and it burns brighter than ever.
“This is incredible. I have to start with Kaja [Karolina Pliskova],” she said. “Congratulations on an incredible tournament to you and your team. I love testing myself against you and I’m sure we’ll have many many matches. It took me a long time to verbalise, to dare to dream it and say it. I didn’t sleep a lot last night, I was thinking of all the what-ifs. I hope I made Evonne proud.”
With Pliskova’s last grand slam final appearance coming in 2016, when she cratered against Angelique Kerber, it was perhaps no surprise that it was Barty who settled first, even as both players’ nerves reverberated under the roof on Centre Court. Immediately summoning all her trickery, she dragged Pliskova across the baseline with a drum of groundstrokes until the Czech lost her rhythm and slipped awkwardly on the opening point. An uncompromising tone had been set and, after holding to love, Barty soon pounced on Pliskova’s serve with glee.
It would be unfair to claim Pliskova relies on power alone, but as her most potent weapon faltered under the heightened pressure, Barty continued to use all the variety of a Swiss army knife as a spectacular lob left Pliskova stranded in her tracks. And, in what felt like the blink of an eye, the Australian had surged into a 4-0 lead in the opening set as Pliskova’s shoulders dropped, a double fault sealed a second break, and she stared at the floor as if searching for an answer.
But with such a firm stranglehold on the match, Barty then inexplicably allowed Pliskova up for air. Her forehand, until then such a reliable metronome, wavered and four hasty and unprompted errors gifted Pliskova her first blood in the match. It might not have changed the course of the first set, with Barty already having built an unsurmountable lead, but it did allow Pliskova to settle. Her tentativeness subsided, her groundstrokes became heavier, and she was able to sink lower and pick Barty’s barrage of slices off the grass. The pair exchanged another set of breaks and, although two exquisite forehands closed out the set, the foundations had at least been laid for Pliskova to show her fortitude in the second.
Her spirit rejuvenated, Pliskova rallied and normality was restored, if only briefly, as the pair traded service holds. But, in a match so often defined by nervous moments, Pliskova’s arm stiffened again and a double fault at the most inopportune moment handed Barty another break. But as quickly as it had been gained, it was surrendered as the promise of victory revealed the nerves under Barty’s cool exterior.
With their mettle disintegrating, the set came down to the finest margins. Twice Barty’s challenges brought her a reprieve by millimetres just as Pliskova had seized the momentum. A cascade of errors then quickly followed as Barty drowned in double faults before Pliskova’s wrists broke at the net and she conspired to miss two of the simplest volleys. With breaks of serve yielded inexplicably, they headed to a tiebreak, and the luck fell in Pliskova’s favour. Twice, her powerful forehands seemed to bend the net cord to her will, the ball flicking up and trickling over into Barty’s side of the court. The Australian offered a wry smile at her misfortune but could hardly conceal her exasperation as a sixth double fault handed Pliskova the second set.
But as both players attempted to use courage to contain their nerves, it was Barty’s relentless consistency that eventually stifled Plisova’s more aggressive tactics. And in her first service game, Pliskova succumbed to the pressure, with two unforced errors sandwiching a double fault. Barty had been handed back the ascendancy without any great struggle, and this time there was to be no generosity in return. And when Pliskova put her serve under pressure, Barty was able to suppress the scale of victory to ease her doubts once and for all. In the scallop-patterned dress worn in homage to Goolagong, the idol that impassioned her career, Barty concreted her own place within Australian tennis’s glittering lineage.