Ashleigh Barty is one win away from becoming the first Australian woman to reach the Wimbledon final in 41 years, but the world No.1 must first unseat one of the queens of grass.
In confronting three-time major winner and 2018 champion Angelique Kerber in the semis, it’s effectively the women’s final two days early at the All-England club. Remarkably, both players win about three out of four matches on the favoured surface, with Kerber boasting a career 80-28 record on grass, including a 6-1 return in 2021.
Ashleigh Barty has been in ominous form at Wimbledon.Credit:Getty Images
For Barty, whose versatile game keeps opponents guessing with a range of backhand slices, dinks, drop shots and lobs, she must find a way to counter the in-form German.
Kerber’s vanquished quarter-final opponent Karolina Muchova reflected on how the left-hander’s uses every angle on the court.
“She’s [a] really good and really experienced player, especially on the grass,” said Muchova, beaten soundly 6-2, 6-3 by the former world No.1.
“She plays good angles. It was great match from her side. So [it] definitely didn’t help me.”
Ominously, Kerber herself knows she’s close to rediscovering the feel on grass that took her to the title three years ago as well as a loss to Serena Williams in the 2016 final.
“I remember how I played here. I know how to play on grasscourt,” said Kerber.
“Against Ash, I know that I have to play my best tennis. She has a lot of confidence right now. She played well. I know that I have to play my own game. I have to just think how to play, be aggressive, and trying to [take] the match more in my hands and going for it. Even if I miss few shots, I have to stay there and trying to pushing her.”
That the Barty-Kerber semi is set to determine this year’s champion is a view endorsed by Australian three-time major finalist Wendy Turnbull, who believes Barty has been getting better with each match at Wimbledon, where this year she started as equal favourite despite injury cruelling the her Roland-Garros campaign and a lack of warm-up events on grass.
Barty has lost just one set en route to the final four – in the opening round against Spaniard Carla Suarez Navarro – and outclassed compatriot Ajla Tomljanovic in the quarters, needing just one hour and six minutes and responding quickly after dropping serve to start the second set.
“I think Ash has the better game, but you can’t discount Kerber at all, with the way she’s playing,” said Turnbull, who reached the Wimbledon quarter-finals three times between 1979 and 1981, losing to the eventual winner, fellow Australian Evonne Goolagong Cawley, in 1980.
Kerber’s charge to the semis has been both eye-catching and a reminder of the left-hander’s capabilities. The German won her three major titles in a three-year hot streak starting at the Australian Open five years ago.
Kerber, who was world No.2 at the start of 2019, is the 25th seed but she too has been steadily improving even though she didn’t face a seeded opponent until the fourth round. Straight-sets wins over rising star Coco Gauff and Muchova have Kerber primed for a title assault.
Turnbull believes Barty has been able to cut out any lapses in concentration.
“It’s sometimes easy to lose your concentration when you’ve won the first set, you lose a little of focus in the second set, but now she’s at the business end of the tournament, as they say … I think today she kept her concentration fairly well,” she said.
“I think she’s definitely getting better with each round.”
The other half of the draw features another former world No.1, Czech Karolina Pliskova, and second-seeded Aryna Sabalenka, one of Barty’s main foes during the Queenlander’s strong return to the circuit in 2021.
Angelique Kerber knows what it takes to take the Wimbledon crown.Credit:Getty Images
But Kerber shapes as the main remaining obstacle in Barty becoming the first Australian since Lleyton Hewitt in 2002 to rule supreme at Wimbledon, according to Turnbull.
“I just can’t put my money on either one of them [Pliskova or Sabalenka] because Pliskova in the past has been a mental letdown. She hasn’t come through when she should have. Sabalenka – this is the best she’s done in a grand slam,” said Turnbull.
“If she plays somebody who has a lot of variety like Ash, Sabalenka, she tries to overpower everybody and she doesn’t have that finesse that someone like Ash has.
“I would say the winner of the tournament comes from Ash and Kerber.”
There’s an eight-year age difference between Barty and Kerber, and they have split their four meetings – all in 2017 and 2018. Noticeably, those matches were on hardcourts.
“We never played on grasscourt,” said Kerber.
“She [Barty] played so great the last few months, years. I know that I have to play my best tennis, and she will push me to that, to give everything out there.
“I love to play on grass. I’m back here in the semis. I will try to enjoy it, playing another good match.”
Her patchy form behind her, Kerber is delighted to again experience fruitful times at Wimbledon.
“Of course, it’s a good feeling already to have the trophy at home and to won it here,” said Kerber, who won a grass event in Germany in this lead-up.
“Now I’m back. I’m coming after really tough time. I was not playing good the last few months. Now winning, like, last week a tournament at home, now playing well here again, that means a lot to me.”
Barty was rapt to get to the next stage of her Wimbledon quest and described Kerber as “one of the best” on the surface.
“Angie obviously has an incredible record here. She’s made multiple finals. She’s one of the best grass-courters going around. I think the challenge of playing her in a semi-final of Wimbledon is an incredible opportunity, one that I’m really excited for,” said the Australian.
“It’s not scary or overwhelming, it’s just exciting. It’s exciting to have the challenge of playing someone who is comfortable on these courts, who knows how to win this tournament.”
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