Ash Barty strolled through her third consecutive match at the Australian Open on Friday night.
Her commanding 6-2 6-3 display against hard-hitting Italian Camila Giorgi was simply breathtaking.
Barty yet again showcased her unmatched variety and a rare ability to manage difficult opponents with a minimum of fuss.
Whilst Barty possesses a whole range of shots that enable her to be so dominant, undoubtedly the most widely recognised is her lethal backhand slice.
Of course, it is important to note that an extraordinarily accurate serve and booming forehand are also essential to the Barty game.
Across her first three matches at this year’s Australian Open, Barty has won 84% of her first-serve points, which is testament to the dominance of her serve and plus one shot.
She’s also on an incredible streak of holding serve 57 consecutive times, dating back to her first-round match in Adelaide against Coco Gauff.
Still, having a great serve and booming forehand is hardly unique on the women’s tour.
A significant portion of Barty’s rivals at the top of the rankings rely upon power-hitting to simply overwhelm their opponents, such as Naomi Osaka and Aryna Sabalenka.
Conversely, the Barty slice stands out so much because it is a rarity in modern tennis, especially on the women’s tour.
Slice backhands have become Barty’s trademark.
The severity and consistency of the shot make it one of the most dangerous in tennis, and the Australian’s mastery of the stroke means she can apply it in a range of circumstances.
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The most common and effective usage of the shot is when Barty comes up against a pure ball-striker with plenty of power.
The match against Giorgi was a clinical display of the slice used in this defensive manner, nullifying an opponent who regularly punches through opponents with ease.
Barty’s movement speed makes this defensive approach even more effective, allowing her to retrieve Giorgi’s shots at a higher rate than most.
The slice allows Barty to not only get to the ball but then return it deep and without much pace, forcing her opponent to take the risk of generating significant power from their own racquet.
Giorgi couldn’t handle Barty’s game. The Italian felt forced to take greater risks to match Barty’s level, hitting closer to the lines and deeper in the court, leading to more unforced errors.
The frustration for a power-hitter like Giorgi is exacerbated by the difficulty of hitting winners against Barty, denying the usual relief that comes from a supremely well-struck groundstroke or serve.
Barty returned over 70% of Giorgi’s serves, despite the world number 33’s serves to reach speeds as high as 188kmh.
What’s more, the rhythm on which a streaky player like Giorgi thrives was also unattainable against the combination of the slice, heavy topspin, and unreturnable serves.
As a result, Giorgi finished the match with only eight winners compared to 24 unforced errors. The slice had broken down Giorgi’s offense.
However, Barty’s slice is not purely a defensive weapon.
Her second-round match against another Italian, Lucia Bronzetti, pitted Barty against a player lacking the pure power of Giorgi.
Instead, Bronzetti would stand deep in the court, utilising her own agility to retrieve her opponent’s shots and attempt to wear them down.
Yet again, the Barty slice was utilised admirably.
This time, Barty would often step into the court with her slice backhand, knifing the ball so that it landed right at Bronzetti’s feet.
The Italian’s extreme grip meant bending down low enough to get under the ball was an immense challenge.
Even when she was able to return one of Barty’s wicked slices, it was often short in the court, allowing the world number one to advance into the forecourt and close out the point.
Using the backhand slice as a tool to play front-foot, attacking tennis is an equally formidable prospect for which Barty has perfected her execution.
Barty’s last two matches have demonstrated the scope Barty has to use her slice backhand against any style of opponent.
The slice forms part of a broader system of Barty tennis which is relentless in its efficiency.
Barty makes returns at as high a rate as anyone – across her first three matches at this year’s Australian Open she has returned over 78% of serves – yet she does so much more than simply get the ball back.
The slice contributes to a remarkable array of spins, speeds, and placements, dragging her opponents all over the court.
Whether playing a defensive grinder or attacking brute, it is rare for anyone to withstand the barrage of Barty shots, chief among them being the backhand slice.
Seeing Bronzetti attempt to deal with the shot highlighted its unfamiliarity for so many of Barty’s opponents.
The increasingly optimised nature of racquets and athletes in modern-day tennis makes the power game an increasingly attractive prospect.
For Barty to disrupt this trend so substantially means that her opponents are often undone by their inexperience alone when it comes to managing such a shot.
Facing a slice like Barty’s presents a unique challenge; preparing for it is difficult and adequately dealing with it is near-impossible.
The final point to raise is that Barty keeps getting better at incorporating the slice into her broader game style.
The development of her topspin backhand in particular means that the slice is less relied upon and applied in more specialised circumstances.
Whereas once the backhand slice was somewhat predictable, now Barty is even harder to read. Barty can punch through her opponent with a conventional, topspin backhand if appropriate.
The well-rounded game for which Barty is renowned continues to develop.
Consequently, the backhand slice is becoming an even more effective weapon in her arsenal.
She can use it to bring opponents into the net, utilise the drop shot on clay, and keep the ball skimming low on grass.
Overall, the variety, effectiveness, and rarity of Ash Barty’s slice backhand make it perhaps the most influential shot in tennis today, considering its contribution to her dominance as world number one.
No doubt it will remain essential when coming up against another brutal hitter like Amanda Anisimova in the fourth round.
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