Johanna Konta’s “acceptance” fatalism got her to the semi-finals of the French Open, her third journey that far in a slam event. Ashleigh Barty’s uncomplicated realism helped her win her breakthrough major and, if they meet at Wimbledon next month, their clash of philosophies will inform the course of the championship.
The British No 1 left Paris with five wins and a loss, butchering set point with an ill-judged drive volley (that she then packed away for the rest of the semi-final) to let Marketa Vondrousova escape from 5-3 down in the semi-finals on Friday and advance to Saturday’s decider where the Czech teenager’s composure evaporated in the face of Barty’s fearless and intelligent shot-making.
A final between them would surely have been a tighter contest, a chess match of penetrative hitting by the battle-hardened Konta and the subtleties of the Australian’s game. Winning the Coupe Suzanne Lenglen lifted Barty to No 2 in the world and Konta, who played the best clay-court tennis of her career, moved up to 18.
Now, as they switch to grass, their favourite surface, over the next several weeks at Birmingham, Eastbourne and Wimbledon, they will have to reset their techniques and ambitions. Konta wants to give herself “an opportunity to do well”, as she puts it. Barty is aiming higher: to become only the second Australian woman to reach No 1 in the world – emulating her hero, Evonne Goolagong Cawley, who ruled for two weeks in 1976.
“Obviously that’s the next point, the next goal, the next situation I can see myself in,” Barty said. “Being No 2 in the world is incredible. It’s something I never dreamed of as a child. But we’ll keep chipping away and try our best to get to No 1.”
The British grass holds fond memories for Barty, who returned from her two-year exile at Eastbourne in 2016. “I was very nervous,” she recalled. “I only got in the draw because it wasn’t full in qualifying. It was pretty nice to be back and almost slip into tournament mode straight away. My routines and my habits came back very quickly. I remember at the end of the week my body was shot. I wasn’t used to playing matches again. I played some pretty good tennis considering it was my first matches back. It feels like yesterday I was there.”
There is a strand of candour running through nearly everything she says. She sugarcoats nothing and embraces the bad with the good, admitting after her semi-final win over Amanda Anisimova that she had played, “some brilliant tennis and some awful tennis”. That made it logical to believe her assessment after dismissing Vondrousova in 70 minutes in the final, that she had played “the perfect match”.
She has other incentives to match Goolagong Cawley, who texted her after the win. “The pathways and the progress that we’ve made for indigenous youth in Australia have been incredible,” Barty said. “There have been more opportunities. There’s more publicity and people are actually aware that there is a pathway for indigenous youths to enjoy, not only in tennis but all other sports.
“Tennis is now becoming a nationwide sport for indigenous youth. It’s incredible to know what Evonne has done and how passionate she is about it. If I can have any small part in it, that would be incredible.”
Her parents, Josie and Robert – who watched the final on TV in the UK after landing at Heathrow from Australia on the day of the match – will be with her for the second chapter of her summer odyssey. “They were with family,” Barty said. “I have some great aunts and uncles in Nottingham. They were with them at their place all glued to the TV.”
Barty remembers Nottingham for other reasons: the final there against Konta a year ago, which she won from 4-1 down in the third. It was not such a happy occasion for Konta, whose “acceptance” briefly deserted her when she described a line call against in the penultimate game as “a joke”. All part of the journey, of course.
On Sunday Barty, who played two seasons of women’s Big Bash before returning to tennis, watched Australia’s World Cup match against India on TV in Paris. “I sent JL [Justin Langer, the coach] a quick message saying I would have loved to have been there. It was really nice to hear from them as well. I’ll be glued to the TV and I will make sure I see it.”
Martina Navratilova is among many former players and experts who expect Barty’s run to continue – on the tennis court. “This could be a great springboard for her,” she said. “I am so glad the sport has got her back. She must be one of the favourites for Wimbledon now. She has the slice and great variety in her game. I don’t think she is a one-slam wonder. I think we will see her win again.”