London, United Kingdom | AFP | Ashleigh Barty goes into Wimbledon buoyed, unlike her predecessor Naomi Osaka, by being world number one and with several of her major rivals struggling.
The engaging 23-year-old Australian — who emulated compatriot Evonne Goolagong Cawley by becoming number one last weekend — has yet to get beyond the third round at Wimbledon.
However, by winning the Birmingham tournament last weekend Barty showed she has the strengths to add the grass court Grand Slam to the French Open she won on clay and become the first Australian women’s champion since Goolagong Cawley’s second success in 1980.
With 37-year-old seven-time champion Serena Williams finally showing signs of age, Osaka looking exposed through poor form and two-time Wimbledon singles champion Petra Kvitova still easing back to top form after an arm injury, defending champion Angelique Kerber may be the biggest threat to Barty.
Barty, who took an unconventional route to becoming world number one by taking a time off to play cricket, insists she feels no pressure.
“The only pressure is that that I put on myself,” she said. “To make sure that I do everything correctly and prepare as best that I can to try and play a good tennis match, try and play well, to enjoy myself.”
Barty, who says the arm problem that forced her withdrawal from the Eastbourne tournament has cleared up, admits Wimbledon is unique among the Grand Slam events in having so few lead-up events on the surface.
“Wimbledon isn’t a normal event,” she said.
“It’s a little bit bizarre coming into Wimbledon having only played one grass court tournament.
“We feel like we’ve been striking the ball really well, we’re comfortable with the grass under our feet.”
Whilst Barty says she did not know what else the draw held for her, Williams claimed not to even know the Australian was number one.
The American legend could perhaps be forgiven her ignorance given how often the top spot has changed since her era of dominance ended.
Nevertheless Williams — who claims she is over the knee woes that saw her pull out of her match with sister Venus at the Italian Open and then make an early French Open exit — believes Barty could be in for a long run as number one.
“I think so,” said Williams. “I think she has a great game.
“I think she’s really even-tempered. She’s just really chill. She’s had a really good year.”
– ‘Take the positive’ –
Williams is still chasing the elusive 24th Grand Slam title that would put her alongside Australian Margaret Court, but she was not talking up her chances.
“I just haven’t had enough match play, quite frankly,” she said.
“I finally feel like I found some good results in Paris.
“I’m just going to do the best that I can now that I’m here,” she said, adding with a smile: “I know how to play tennis.”
Osaka, for her part, says she is much more in the frame of mind she was when she won the Australian Open earlier this year than the stressed-out player who exited the French Open in the third round.
The 21-year-old says the number one spot she held earlier this year had been a millstone round her neck: “Mentally it was way more stress and pressure than I could have imagined.”
Despite a second-round defeat at the Birmingham tournament she insists she is in good shape going into Wimbledon, where she has yet to get past the third round.
“Actually in Australia I felt like normal,” she said. “I felt like how I am now.
“I feel like it (grass) should be good for me because it’s very heavily reliant on the first serves, being the first person to be aggressive.”
Kerber may have lost in the Eastbourne final to Karolina Pliskova but the German will be delighted if like last year that is the launching pad to winning at the All England club. Last year she lost in the Eastbourne semi-final only to go on and win Wimbledon.
“I will try to take the positive things from the whole week, from the last two weeks before going to Wimbledon now,” said the 31-year-old German.