Evaluating Ash Barty's Incredible Wimbledon Balancing Act

This image is a derivative of Sydney International Tennis WTA Premier, by Rob Keating (CC BY-SA 2.0)

As I sit down and write this piece, Wimbledon’s “Manic Monday” – the one day in tennis when all 16 fourth-round matches are played – has just ended. 

As you know, Wimbledon plays all four women’s quarterfinals the day after Manic Monday. This means some of you might read this piece after Ashleigh Barty plays her Wimbledon quarterfinal against Ajla Tomljanovic in an all-Australian encounter.   

The obvious and necessary question to ask, in light of that particular scheduling nuance: “Would a loss to Tomljanovic put a damper on this Wimbledon, or has Ash Barty already delivered a result she can feel good about?” 

That's not an easy question to answer. 

The best way to tackle this question is to point out that the way in which a player loses affects how we view her tournament and her standing in a given sport.  

If Tomljanovic – who is well-known throughout the tennis community as a player with great talent and ball-striking ability – plays her A-game and Barty can’t quite keep pace, Ash won’t have much to lament.

It’s only if Barty has the match within her grasp and lets it slip away that she might rue how she played this tournament. 

That is one part of the puzzle, and the one we should emphasise the most. Let’s see how this quarterfinal plays out; then we can offer a better and more informed judgment. Start from that foundation. 

RELATED: Check out all of Stats Insider's Wimbledon projections 

Before that quarterfinal begins, however, I offer this broader question: Is a quarterfinal worth viewing as a worthy result for a player of Ash Barty’s talent and skill? 

This is also a complicated question. 

If Barty had not suffered multiple injuries late in the clay season (at Rome and Roland Garros), and if she had played a warm-up event during the grass season, her expectations for this tournament would have been much higher, as they were in 2019. Barty entered Roland Garros as the clear No. 1 player in women’s tennis – not just in terms of rankings points, but in terms of being the WTA Tour’s most consistent player across all surfaces. If she was at full health for Wimbledon, making the final would have been the baseline expectation. 

That, however, is not the case. 

Barty was injured. She had to retire from her second-round match in Paris. She didn’t play grass warm-up events due to a necessary focus on getting healthy. Not having match play on grass before Wimbledon is unwelcome in any year, but especially when no one on tour played grass tennis last year. 

That reality, combined with her injury rust and overall uncertainty about her interrupted season, cast a shadow over Barty heading into Wimbledon this summer. 

When viewed in that light, Barty – merely by getting to the quarterfinals – has done better than some of her fans might have expected. What she has objectively done, in a way which can’t be debated, is that she has advanced deeper into Wimbledon than in 2019, when Alison Riske stunned her in the fourth round. Improving upon her 2019 result while being in worse physical shape than she was two years ago sends a clear message to the field about Ash’s staying power.  

It also sends a message to Ash herself that she hasn’t lost the touch on her signature skill: solving problems to finish off difficult matches. 

This has not been Ash Barty’s best run of form at Wimbledon. You can see that the serve isn’t a fine and fluid machine, which is a departure from her normal level. Error counts have generally been higher. This isn’t, however, a verdict on Barty as a tennis player, because this rust and raggedness were to be expected without any grass warm-up events. 

Moreover – in a much bigger picture than just Wimbledon alone – Barty and coach Craig Tyzzer have been road-tripping the past several months and will continue to live on the road through the U.S. Open at the very least. This 2021 response to the pandemic has made Barty’s life less familiar, and therefore more challenging.  

That she has held the World No. 1 ranking is a tremendous achievement, all things considered. It says so much about Barty that her competitive chops have compensated for the rust and her recent layoff to this extent at Wimbledon. 

Barty truly has balanced short- and long-term considerations with great thoughtfulness and care. 

Now, though, we have to allow ourselves to look at this second week at Wimbledon for a little bit. 

As I put the finishing touches on this article after the end of Manic Monday, Barty has a lot of prizes to grab. It would be amazing if she won them all by lifting the championship trophy on the weekend, but merely one more win – against Tomljanovic in the quarterfinals – would achieve something significant.  

Aryna Sabalenka is the No. 2 seed at this Wimbledon. If Sabalenka wins Wimbledon, Barty can still remain No. 1 if she makes the semifinals. That’s one part of the stakes which are on the line against Tomljanovic. Making a first Wimbledon semifinal is the other big goal for Barty in the quarters.  

If Barty gets past that matchup, she will be in for a supreme test against 2018 Wimbledon champion and 2016 finalist Angelique Kerber, or the ascendant Karolina Muchova, who very nearly reached the Australian Open final earlier this year and has now made consecutive Wimbledon quarterfinals. If Barty is able to win her quarterfinal, simply seeing her on the big stage in a showcase semifinal would cement the notion that Barty belongs in these matches, which would reinforce the reality that she lives and breathes the air of an elite player – not necessarily always winning titles, but always being in the hunt. 

If Barty manages to get past Kerber or Muchova – two experts in court-craft and tactics – she would move to the final and face, in all likelihood, a bomb-thrower. 

The aforementioned Sabalenka, Ons Jabeur, Karolina Pliskova, and one-handed backhand wizard Viktorija Golubic can all lash the ball. Barty would have to withstand their power and find out how to defuse it. She has done that before, but it would be a huge challenge because of her comparative lack of form. 

Yet, if anyone can sort through problems, Ash Barty can. Let’s see what she can make of this stretch run at Wimbledon. 

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Matt Zemek

Matt has written professionally about US College Football since 2000, and has blogged about professional Tennis since 2014. He wants the Australian Open to play Thursday night Women's Semi-Finals, and Friday evening Men's Semi-Finals. Contribute to his Patreon for exclusive content here.

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