“If we look long term for Ash, I think she’s really got the ability to get into the top 10 in the world, and once you’re in that bracket, who knows what can happen.”Todd Woodbridge
Todd Woodbridge believes emerging star Ashleigh Barty has the potential to reach the highest level of the women’s game.
Barty, the reigning junior Wimbledon champion, is one of the most exciting prospects to come through Australia’s player development pathway in recent times, and in 2012 has made an extremely impressive transition from the junior to senior ranks.
The 16-year-old Queenslander, with a WTA ranking of No.330, is currently in Paris after being awarded a wildcard into the main draw at Roland Garros. This came about through the reciprocal arrangement between Tennis Australia and the French Tennis Federation, in which one male and one female player from each country gains direct acceptance into the draw of the other nation’s Grand Slam event.
However, she has been thrust into the deep end in her Paris debut, drawn to face world No.4 Petra Kvitova in her first round match.
Speaking prior to leaving for Paris in his role as Tennis Australia’s Head of Professional Tennis, Woodbridge said Barty was thoroughly deserving of the wildcard honour.
“It’s an outstanding achievement at 16 to be able to get a wildcard into the main draw of a Grand Slam,” he said.
“She won the wildcard play-off for the Australian Open, and her junior achievements have been as good as anybody. I think the one thing I’m looking forward to seeing is how she handles the expectation and pressure she puts on herself, because I know she’s her harshest critic.”
Barty’s play following on from her appearance at Melbourne Park – where she lost in two tight sets to Georgian Anna Tatishvili in the first round – simply strengthened her credentials in the eyes of Australia’s wildcard selection panel.
In March, she came through qualifying to win the $25,000 ITF Pro Tour event in Sydney, and followed this up by claiming the Mildura ITF Pro Tour tournament – the first two professional titles of her career in the space of a fortnight. A month later she headed to her home state, winning through to the final of the ITF Pro Tour event on clay at Ipswich.
Establishing a winning streak of 16 matches before falling to Poland’s Sandra Zaniewska in the Ipswich decider, these results have seen the youngster slash her WTA ranking by around 350 places since the beginning of the season.
Woodbridge said that with a good draw at the French Open, there was no reason why she could not continue on her superb roll.
“I don’t have any big expectations for Ash because I don’t want to put any pressure on her … (but) she easily has the potential to win a couple of rounds, which I think would be a great story,” he said.
Taking on the big-hitting Kvitova would not be classified in anyone’s eyes as a “good” draw, as the Czech is the reigning Wimbledon champion and owns some the most feared groundstrokes and biggest serves in the women’s game.
Yet Kvitova’s form has been scratchy this season compared to her stellar play in 2011, where she claimed six titles and rose to world No.2. She has failed to reach a final since winning the WTA Championships in October, and her claycourt results have been patchy – in her two most recent events she fell in the third round at Madrid and the quarters in Rome, both times to lower-ranked opponents.
Although the 4th seed will likely present an insurmountable barrier this time, Barty presents a stiff challenge to her opponents, regardless of who she plays.
One of the Queenslander’s strengths is her ability to rob her opponents of rhythm and pace by mixing up her game. Critical to her arsenal is an exceptionally-struck slice backhand, which Woodbridge said was among the best of any girl’s he had ever seen, including greats Steffi Graf and Justine Henin.
“I saw her practicing here in Melbourne before she went over to Europe, and she’s improved; she’s physically stronger, the shots and everything are looking really good, and I know for me, that’s one of the most exciting things to go and see over the next couple of weeks,” he said.
“I’ve always been an advocate for contrast in the game, and she’s got contrast. It’s a lot like Bernard Tomic – it stands out and makes them different, and gives them an X-Factor.”
Her short stature – Barty is currently just 164cm tall, or five-feet-five in the old lingo – could present issues as her career progresses. It’s something Woodbridge says she must counter with exceptional footwork and physical strength to absorb the power of the modern women’s game.
Yet there are several recent examples of smaller women enjoying great success in the upper echelons of the sport, including Martina Hingis, Agnieszka Radwanska and Henin, the latter of whom Barty’s game reminds Woodbridge of the most.
“She’s got a two-handed backhand but she’s got a slice that can really break up the court,” he explained.
“She’s got a lovely gift to be able to change the speed and the spins (of the ball) and open up an opponent, and doesn’t necessarily do it by belting them off the court.”
It’s a glowing comparison, and one that bodes well ahead of the French Open – Henin was a four-time champion at Roland Garros, including winning a hat-trick of titles from 2005 to 2007.
As she continues to mature physically and mentally, Barty could soon be adding her name to the many glittering Grand Slam trophies once held aloft by her Belgian predecessor.
Woodbridge, for one, believes that Barty is on the right track to success.
“If we look long term for Ash, I think she’s really got the ability to get into the top 10 in the world, and once you’re in that bracket, who knows what can happen,” he said.
“There’s a lot of water to go under the bridge, but she’s certainly, at this stage, got the talent to go a long, long way.”