A backhand slice.
There’s not much pace on the ball, but it glides gracefully through the air, curving a tad, zipping forward and staying low on the bounce. On the other end of the net, the opponent rushes to meet it, using a decent amount of energy to send it back with a hard and flat ground stroke.
Then comes another slice, and another, and another. It’s a barrage of one-handed backhand slices that eventually finds the opponent thumping a ball long or hammering it into the net.
This is not the description of a specific rally. It simply resembles the numerous exchanges Ashleigh Barty had over her tennis career.
She broke convention in this modern era of hard-hitting, lights-out tennis. She allowed elements of a craft that is increasingly becoming outdated – the volley, the touch, the feel – to remain relevant. And the backhand slice – a shot that can be mistaken for fatigue or a defensive requirement – had been weaponised into an attacking stroke. That’s how Barty played her tennis. Her way.
And it was on her own terms, on Wednesday, that she announced her retirement from the sport, aged 25.
There was shock in the tributes that came pouring in from fans, friends and colleagues alike. But there was no mistaking the tone of celebration to mark the achievements of one of the most likeable players on the tour.
The world No 1, for 114 consecutive weeks – the fourth-longest streak in WTA history – has led the women’s pack as far as rankings are concerned, but there has been no such fierce rivalry. She gets along well with her peers, despite a game style that can frustrate the hardest strikers of the ball.
She stands at 5-foot-5 – diminutive perhaps for today’s game – but has one of the steadiest serves in the sport. She can hit it flat, put in a kick-serve that will make the ball jump, a slice serve to curve it away. Then there’s the groundstrokes – a powerful forehand that finds impeccable angles to create openings (if at all returned). The two-handed backhand is steady and useful, but it’s her slice that is most devastating.
“Ash’s slice technique is arguably the best backhand slice technique in the world, period, men’s (or) women’s tennis,” four-time Grand Slam champion Jim Courier had once said during commentary for Channel 9.
And then there’s the all-court game that breaks the modern baseline-hugging tradition applied by most players on the WTA and ATP.
“Ash plays different to most girls. She likes to come into the net, she uses her slice very well and she’s crafty,” Thanasi Kokkinakis said, as quoted by The Guardian.
“Whereas a lot of girls like to hit the ball hard and flat, she plays a little bit differently, she plays with a bit more control.”
She does this all with a straight, unwavering expression on her face, which gives way to the big endearing smile at the end of a win.
It’s a game unique to her, one she’s carved out to shape the second part of her tennis career. A spell that saw her win the 2019 French Open, 2021 Wimbledon and the 2022 Australian Open.
Curiously, it was in an interview just after that triumph in Melbourne where she gave a hint into what eventually unfurled on Wednesday morning.
“I think it’s going to be really important now for us to take stock and genuinely draw a line in the sand and go, ‘Okay, we get to celebrate a really, really incredible achievement, celebrate the people that were there with us and then refocus for what’s next,’” she said to WTA Insider.
The next point in the agenda was to end her second sojourn in tennis. And since her last-ever match as a tennis player will be the triumph at Melbourne Park in January – where she became the first Australian since 1978 to win the home Slam – it was the best way to sign-off.
“I think that for me, feels like the most perfect way – my perfect way – to celebrate what an amazing journey my tennis career has been,” Barty said to Dellacqua.
On her terms. Exactly how her entire sporting career has shaped up.
Be it wearing an outfit during her Wimbledon 2021 triumph that was inspired by what her mentor and idol Evonne Goolagong Cawley had worn when she won the title in 1971. Or the playing style. Or actively paying homage to her aboriginal roots (she’s a proud Ngarigo), or even taking a decision to retire from tennis when she was 18.
All those years ago, as a promising player, she decided to step away from tennis in 2014, and take up cricket. She did manage to play nine Women’s Big Bash League matches for the Brisbane Heat. But then returned to tennis after a 21-month sabbatical.
She still holds cricket dear – there was a video of her batting, bowling and wicket-keeping in the Melbourne Park lockeroom with her team, using her tennis kit bag as makeshift stumps.
But she’s also an avid golfer – winning a title at the Brookwater Golf Club in September 2020 – where she had first met her fiancé, professional golfer Garry Kissick in 2016.
It’s uncertain if Barty will ever attempt a third innings in tennis. But if there’s one thing she’s made clear in this short career that ends a month before her 26th birthday, it’s that whatever she will do, it will be on her terms. Her way.