By Martyn Herman
PARIS (Reuters) – Ashleigh Barty likens a tennis match to a slightly more energetic game of chess and on Thursday she showed all the right moves to scramble Madison Keys’ brain in their French Open quarter-final on Thursday.
With her crafty style, full of slices, topspin, dropshots and net approaches, the 23-year-old Australian drove Keys to despair at times in a 6-3 7-5 win to advance to her first Grand Slam semi-final against American teenager Amanda Anisimova.
Barty can hit as hard as most, when required, but prefers a more thoughtful, three-dimensional, approach than merely trying to knock the fluff of every ball.
At times on Thursday on a sunny Court Suzanne Lenglen, it appeared, in the words of fellow Australian Pat Cash, that Barty was toying with her opponent before declaring checkmate in little over an hour.
“It is a puzzle out there. It’s a little bit of a chess game in a way,” Barty, who returned to tennis in 2016 having switched to cricket, told reporters.
“I have always enjoyed that part of it. I think when I first started playing the game, Jim, my coach, taught me as many shots as possible. The toughest thing is making sure I make the right decisions. I’m getting better at that every single day.”
Barty’s fizzing sliced backhand drew occasional gasps from the crowd, the ball defying gravity as it cleared the net by millimetres before skidding to the baseline.
At other times she was fading it short and then when Keys was out of position, whipping up unreturnable forehands.
She may have hit only 16 winners, but many of the 26 unforced errors Keys made were because she had run out of answers to the questions continually being posed by her wily opponent.
Barty said it was perhaps her best match ever on clay and former Wimbledon champion Cash was full of praise.
“She played a fantastic match,” Cash, working as a pundit for Eurosport, said. “Maybe she’s not the most powerful, but nobody is smarter than Ash Barty.
“Keys was screaming and pulling her hair out. Ash was toying with her at times.”
Barty also made the quarter-finals at the Australian Open and won the Miami title, her biggest to date, this year.
But clay has not always been her cup of tea and prior to this year she had never gone past the second round in five previous appearances at Roland Garros.
She has a sharp tactical brain though and is working it out.
“We have approached this clay court season a little bit differently to others,” the 23-year-old Queenslander said.
“Really enjoyed it, embraced it. Ultimately I feel like when I’m able to play my game style and my kind of tennis, I can match it with everyone regardless what surface it’s on.”
Considering the opportunity ahead, Barty appears calm and composed, saying it has been “quiet” for a Grand Slam.
“It’s been quite bizarre because we are at a slam, but in my mind it’s been a very quiet tournament,” Barty said, saying she has even been able to enjoy watching the Cricket World Cup taking place across the English Channel.
“I’ve done a really good job of switching off this week, enjoying that quiet time, enjoying other sports and interests that I have that are going on around the world at the moment and making sure it’s not always just about tennis.”
(Reporting by Martyn Herman; Editing by Christian Radnedge)