US Open 2021: The WTA Will Be Hunting Ash Barty In New York

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

Ashleigh Barty comes to New York as the reigning Wimbledon champion, having just taken a blowtorch to the WTA Tour in Cincinnati.

Barty didn’t lose a single set in Ohio. When her body doesn’t betray her – injuries cut short her campaigns in both Rome and at the French Open – she often makes the final of the tournament she's contesting. 

Miami, Stuttgart, Madrid, Wimbledon, Cincinnati – Barty has made the final at each of those tournaments, winning four of them in 2021. 

Clearly, she is the world’s best women’s tennis player. 

Clearly, the WTA will be hunting her down in New York.

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Everyone wants to take down Ash Barty. For that reason alone, it will be extremely difficult to win the U.S. Open… but that doesn’t even begin to express just how hard it will be for Ash to lift this particular trophy.

Barty, as reports revealed just after her Wimbledon championship, did not know how severe her injury (from Roland Garros) actually was. Her medical team felt that she was playing Wimbledon with a two-month injury. Yet, as we all know, Barty took only four weeks off between her Roland Garros exit and the start of The Championships at SW19. Barty overcame enormous odds to win Wimbledon. Most human beings wouldn’t have been able to do what she did.

By now, we should know: Ash Barty isn’t most human beings. She’s Ash Barty, owner of uncommon strength. 

The heavy lifting she has done – while not being able to return home to Australia for rest and recuperation – is simply phenomenal. It has been legitimately breathtaking to see her ascend to an even higher plane of toughness, achievement, and historic significance in women’s tennis.

She is no longer a “one-hit wonder” in terms of major championships. Making the leap from one to two major trophies profoundly changes and elevates a tennis player’s overall legacy.

Winning Wimbledon – for reasons we explored after Barty’s championship at the All-England Club in July– is the fulfillment of Barty’s greatest dreams. She followed in the footsteps of a mentor, idol, trailblazer, and icon, Australia’s Evonne Goolagong. 

Barty’s tennis story has become the stuff of legend in 2021 – not that it wasn’t hugely impressive before (it certainly was), but when an Australian wins Wimbledon and attains genuine dominance in tennis, that’s the kind of journey which merits a TV movie and banner headlines.

As we bring the focus back to this U.S. Open, then, Barty is facing a field of 127 other women’s tennis players who want to beat her. That’s her main obstacle. Another obstacle: Finding the fuel in the tank to push through tough matches after having won Wimbledon – her ultimate ambition as a tennis player – and moreover, after having won an Olympic medal for Australia in Tokyo, taking bronze in mixed doubles with John Peers. Barty has achieved so much in 2021 that at the U.S. Open, she might let go of the rope when she runs into adversity.

No one would blame her. It would be entirely natural for her to lose a few ounces of the hunger she has displayed throughout 2021. No one would view her as a diminished or overrated figure if she loses. She has been too good and accomplished too much at this point for anyone to continue to question her status in women’s tennis. Yet, if she is going to find a way to win this tournament – or at least come very close – she has to find a way to remain mentally refreshed.

One more challenge: Returning home to Australia, to her own home, to her own bed, to her own community, is coming ever closer. Knowing that cherished moment is approaching is its own significant mental hurdle for Barty. In New York, she has to keep that thought at bay and not let it acquire too much real estate in her own mind.

RELATED: Evaluating Ash Barty's Incredible Wimbledon Balancing Act

Barty has to pull off a very delicate mental balancing act in New York, so how can she do it?

She simply has to remember how she won Wimbledon.

Let’s re-emphasize the point made above: Barty took four months off to heal for Wimbledon, even though it was later disclosed that she had a two-month injury in terms of severity. 

She won Wimbledon entirely against the odds, and against medical analysis. She knew when she began her Wimbledon campaign that she didn’t know what to expect. Her first-round match against Carla Suarez-Navarro was a rough three-set ride, and frankly, most of her Wimbledon matches – the brilliant semifinal against Angelique Kerber being the one true exception – did not feature her at her very best. Her quality of play was predictably uneven, but she fought through patchy moments for two whole weeks.

It's hard to shake this central, fundamental notion: Ash Barty, precisely because she didn’t know what to expect at Wimbledon, played with an inner freedom which enabled her to see this tournament as an opportunity, not a burden. 

When Barty went to Wimbledon in 2019 as the freshly-crowned Roland Garros champion, she was – much as she will be at the U.S. Open – the player everyone else wanted to beat. She was fully healthy, but in the fourth round, she didn’t fight through rough patches well. Alison Riske took her out, and her Wimbledon dreams were shattered. Barty won Wimbledon two years later because her injury lowered expectations. Even though she was the top seed, she played with an underdog’s sense of liberation.

It is part of sports psychology: Athletes often have to trick themselves to play their best. Sometimes, this means believing you can win even when you know you’re the inferior player. Other times, this means adopting an underdog mentality even when you’re the best player in the world. 

This latter approach is what can help Ash Barty claim even more history in 2021, before she returns to that comfortable and familiar bed in Australia, as the Queen of Women’s Tennis.

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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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