Wimbledon: At 25, Ashleigh Barty walks through the gates of the All-England Club with the gratitude of an old soul.
Since she won Wimbledon’s junior championship a decade ago, the venue has been a measuring stick of Barty’s maturity as a person, through dark times and good.
As a player, it has also been a classroom, teaching her to adapt to an imperfect surface with a personality that changes according to sun, shade, humidity and the degradation of two weeks of matches.
For those who love Wimbledon, it is a hallowed place, restored to life this year after being shuttered amid the coronavirus pandemic in 2020.
For Barty, it is, above all, the setting of Australian triumph a half-century ago, when Evonne Goolagong Cawley won the first of her two Wimbledon titles on Centre Court. That achievement holds such powerful meaning for world No. 1 Barty, an indigenous Australian, as is Goolagong Cawley, that she is competing this year in a custom outfit that pays homage to the scallop-hemmed dress her idol wore in 1971.
When she steps on court at Wimbledon, Barty is mindful of all that history. Then she pushes it from her mind and focuses on the moment - the privilege and joy, as she describes it, of hitting freely and playing each point on its merits, without regard for the score.
“It’s all about the moment,” Barty said. “It’s all about taking it in, it’s about enjoying it.”
With this formula, the top-ranked Barty took one more step toward a childhood dream Thursday, defeating three-time Grand Slam champion Angelique Kerber 6-3, 7-6 (3) to advance to Wimbledon’s final for the first time.
Her opponent Saturday - Karolina Pliskova, 29, of the Czech Republic - is also a first-time Wimbledon finalist, having weathered a barrage of blasts from second-seeded Aryna Sabalenka, 5-7, 6-4, 6-4, in the afternoon’s other semifinal.
Barty’s participation at Wimbledon this year was in doubt just a few weeks ago, when she was forced to withdraw from the French Open with a lingering hip injury. In the short window for recovery, Barty said, she and her trainers have done everything possible to prepare her for the grass-court classic.
Through six matches, she has conceded just one set.
On Thursday, Kerber demanded her best.
A former world No. 1, Kerber, 33, was the only former Wimbledon champion remaining in the draw, having beaten Serena Williams in straight sets to claim the 2018 title. Kerber was also on a 10-match grass-court winning streak, enjoying a career resurgence after having lost her passion for tennis for a time.
With a 2-2 career record, the semifinalists met on Centre Court for the first time since 2018.
Barty and Kerber aren’t the tallest players on tour, at 5-foot-5 and 5-foot-8, respectively. But they are among the best athletes in women’s tennis, with impressive foot speed, defensive grit and the flexibility to crouch down and blast away at the low-bouncing balls that make grass such a challenge.
Barty, the more varied shot-maker, seized the upper hand early, leaving Kerber, the more powerful hitter, playing from behind and down a break in the first set.
Barty, who finished with 38 winners and 16 unforced errors, called it “close to the best tennis match” she had ever played and credited that to Kerber.
Though Barty was tapped for greatness as at 15, she put down her rackets and walked away from tennis at 18 after the weight of expectations, the rigors of international travel and the distance from her family sapped the joy she once took in the sport.
After a nearly two-year hiatus, in which she played professional cricket and spent time with loved ones, she returned to the pro tour without a timetable for achievement.
She wasn’t ready, at the time, to declare that winning Wimbledon - as Goolagong Cawley had done in 1971 and 1980 - was her dream.
Today, Barty says so proudly.
“One day I would love to be the champion here,” Barty said at the tournament’s outset. “It’s a dream. It’s a goal. Dreams don’t always come true, but you can fight and do everything you can to give yourself that opportunity.
“That has been a lot of my learnings over the last two years as a person - not just as a professional tennis player, but as a person. [It is] putting my hopes and dreams out into the universe and chasing them.”
- Washington Post