By Martyn Herman
LONDON (Reuters) – The angle of Ash Barty’s climb to the top of women’s tennis has been so steep, the rise so fast, that the sight of her name perched on top of the Wimbledon draw as top seed and favourite still requires a second glance.
A month ago when the French Open began the 23-year-old Australian was just another name in a wide-open women’s field being spoken about as a title contender.
When she walks on court on Monday she will do so as the newest member of the Grand Slam winners’ club and as world number one, just three years after returning to the sport she quit at the end of 2014 for cricket.
In her own words the last few weeks have been a “whirlwind” and while the tranquillity of the All England Club in the days leading up to the Championships offers a chance to catch breath, she knows it is only a temporary lull.
Reaching the summit is one thing but setting up camp there is an entirely different proposition, especially at Wimbledon where Barty is joined by 14 other Grand Slam champions and four finalists in a draw fraught with danger.
Barty could face Spain’s 2017 Wimbledon champion Garbine Muguruza in the third round and awaiting in the quarter-finals could be defending champion Angelique Kerber or seven-times winner Serena Williams with twice champion Petra Kvitova a potential obstacle in the semi-final.
Predicting the outcome of women’s Grand Slams has been a fool’s game since Serena Williams earned her 23rd title at the 2017 Australian Open before breaking off to have a baby.
Eight different players have won the nine Grand Slams since then with only Japan’s Naomi Osaka winning two.
The name missing from that list is Williams, who remains tantalisingly one short of Margaret Court’s all-time record of 24 Grand Slam singles titles.
She lost to Kerber in last year’s Wimbledon final and Osaka in a stormy U.S. Open title match and while logic suggests time might be running out for the 37-year-old American, only the foolhardy would dismiss her chances of claiming an eighth Wimbledon title.
“She has that intangible championship quality that not a lot of players have,” three-times Wimbledon champion Chris Evert said as she previewed the tournament for ESPN.
“There’s so many things that may be going against Serena, but she thrives on that, she loves that, that’s when she comes through. If there was any Grand Slam she was going to win, it would probably be Wimbledon.
“If her serve is on, she’s going to be tough to beat.”
Apart from Williams, Barty’s game looks most naturally-suited to grass which is why her making her Grand Slam breakthrough on clay was such an extraordinary achievement.
Only six women — Court, Billie Jean King, Evert, Martina Navratilova, Steffi Graf and Serena Williams — have won Wimbledon straight after the French, however, and it would take a “Herculean” effort for Barty to join that group, says Evert.
“At some point it’s got to be overwhelming, and she’s a human being,” Evert said. “She has the game. She has the athleticism, the variety. I just kind of wonder when the tank is going to start to get a little bit empty.”
With so many names in the frame it is easy to overlook defending champion Kerber, who appears to be finding her A-game at the perfect time having struggled with injuries on clay.
The 31-year-old left-hander is bidding to become the first woman to defend a Grand Slam title since Serena at Wimbledon in 2016 and the sixth at the All England Club in the last 50 years.
(Reporting by Martyn Herman; Editing by Toby Davis)