Since February, when Naomi Osaka won the Australian Open, no player on the women’s tour has been better than Ash Barty. She is a year and a half older than Osaka but still seems like a new face in the singles game—she spent her earliest pro years mostly concentrating on doubles and did not play at all last year, after COVID emerged. But she had finished 2019 as the No. 1 player in the world, and the suspension of the tour meant that she held on to that ranking for 2020. In the past few months, she’s made her way from North American courts to European clay, from enforced isolation in hotel rooms to tennis in near-empty arenas—all far from her Australian home, where she is not planning to return until the fall. (If she had gone back this spring, she may have had to quarantine for weeks and forgo events.) She’s continued to win with her all-court game, her variations of pace and spin, and her thinky way of constructing points. Heading into the French Open, which begins this weekend, and which she won two years ago, she’s looked entirely deserving of her top ranking. She’s been something.
As far as ranking points go, Barty’s closest competitor during this stretch has been Aryna Sabalenka, a nearly six-foot-tall twenty-three-year-old from Belarus whose cannon-shot serve—it has touched a hundred and thirty-three miles per hour—and baseline aggression have become consistent enough to make her a week-in, week-out terror for opponents, and lifted her to No. 4 in the world, behind Barty, Osaka, and Simona Halep. She does not play the grinding game that one associates with clay, but, even so, in Paris, at Roland Garros, she, like Barty, will be among the favorites to make a deep run, and possibly win. (Halep, who may have the best clay-court skills of any woman on the tour, is sidelined with a calf tear.)
One of the last tournaments that Barty played in 2019, before winning the W.T.A. Finals and taking her COVID hiatus, was in China, at the Wuhan Open, of all places. There, she faced Sabalenka in the semifinals, and lost a close match, 5–7, 4–6. This past March, after Barty’s return, they squared off again, playing a three-setter in Miami, on a hard court—a quarterfinal match that was one of the most compelling of the season so far. They kindled each other through a wilting afternoon, until Barty managed to secure the victory, 6–4, 6–7 (5), 6–3. (She went on to win the tournament.) In recent weeks, Barty and Sabalenka have met twice in the finals of clay-court tournaments that serve as key run-ups to the French Open: in Stuttgart, Barty won in three hard-fought sets; in Madrid, Sabalenka won in three hard-fought sets. Which is all to say that Barty and Sabalenka, with their shared athleticism and drive, their contrasting in-game styles, and their habit just now of finding themselves across the net from each other in big matches, have the makings of rivals.
Fingers crossed. Women’s tennis has for too long been bereft of rivalries. For years—decades, even—there has been nothing remotely like Federer vs. Nadal, or Nadal vs. Djokovic, or Djokovic vs. Federer. The women’s game boasts the greatest tennis rivalry ever, arguably the greatest rivalry in all of sports: Chris Evert vs. Martina Navratilova. Righty against lefty, baseliner against net-rusher, Evert and Navratilova played eighty matches, including sixty tournament finals—fourteen of them Grand Slam finals. They battled each other for much of two decades and grew to be friends. That rivalry ended more than thirty years ago, but it’s recalled by fans as if it were yesterday. No rivalry on the women’s tour has come along yet to crowd out the memory.
Great rivalries in tennis are built on formidable requirements. Both players must meet regularly, or regularly enough, in the crucial last days of tournaments. This means that both players must compete on various surfaces across the season, must remain relatively injury-free, must summon their best in consequential matches, and must keep playing at or near the top of their games for years. This was never easy, but it was easier in the era of Evert and Navratilova, because the game and the tour were less punishing to both the bodies and psyches of players. To reach a final or semifinal today, you have to defeat more good players than you did in the nineteen-eighties: the globalization of the game, and the money that women can make playing tennis compared with other sports—which helps attract the best female athletes in the world to the game—has deepened the field immensely. There’s so much talent. If you are a top player on the women’s tour today, and your opponent in an early round is ranked No. 28, you had better bring your A game, or you’ll go down—as Osaka did to the late-blooming American Jessica Pegula, a couple of weeks ago, in Rome.
Exactly one player in the women’s game in this era has checked all the boxes to be someone’s great rival: Serena Williams. But no one has been able to compete with her for a sustained stretch of time. Her sister Venus, Maria Sharapova, and Victoria Azarenka each went toe to toe with her for a while. Then Serena began beating them comfortably, and then, more often than not, she began beating them soundly. The player who had the best run at being a rival of Serena’s was Justine Henin, a lithe Belgian with a resolute one-handed backhand and splendid footwork. She had a winning record against Williams on clay (4–1) and, to Serena’s chagrin, a winning record against her in Grand Slam tournaments (4–3). She was 2-0 against Serena at Roland Garros. But, at twenty-five, she retired—for what turned out to be the first time; she made a brief comeback a couple of years later—though not before meeting Williams once more, in Miami, and getting crushed by her, 2–6, 0–6. Lopsided matches are not, for the most part, the stuff of a rivalry.
Barty and Sabalenka have not been playing lopsided matches. They’ve been playing focussed, unyielding tennis in the sort of taut, highlight-laden contests that reveal the promise of the game. One hopes that they will fulfill that promise and find a way to clash with one another, again and again, for years.
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