World No.1 Ash Barty may have swept all before her en-route to the Australian Open final, but the Aussie has not always been afforded the level of respect that her ranking suggests she should receive.
It was three years ago when the generation’s best women’s player, Serena Williams, hit the Australian with a spectacular back-handed compliment, calling Barty “cute”.
Williams was asked about Barty being the world No.1, a ranking she has now held for three years running, and seemed surprised.
“Wow, that’s great,” the 23-time Grand Slam champion said back in 2019.
“I think Ash, I don’t know anyone that has anything negative to say about her. She’s like the sweetest, cutest girl on tour. She’s so nice.”
Three years on from that comment, Barty has put together arguably the most dominant Grand Slam performance in recent memory, transforming herself into a bona-fide force in the women’s game, rather than simply a “cute” performer.
“She was cute back then, but she’s not cute now,” former Australian pro Casey Dellacqua told Wide World of Sports’ The Morning Serve. “She’s tough, fierce and determined now.”
“Back then, she was just this little tacker and I think we forgot how old she was.
“Obviously through those junior years she was vulnerable and it was a real challenge for her to work through those years.”
Barty’s dominant run to this year’s Australian Open final has come with Williams sitting at home while recovering from a leg injury.
The 25-year-old faces Williams’ compatriot Danielle Collins in her quest to win her third Grand Slam title, with her previous two coming since Williams last hoisted a Grand Slam trophy in 2017.
The Australian star’s dominance has resembled that of a prime Williams, prompting the question of who would win in a blockbuster clash between the two in their respective heydays.
Australian tennis great Jelena Dokic said the current world No.1 would have caused Williams some discomfort, even in her prime years.
“I think there will always be comparisons to Serena, especially in this generation where she is the benchmark, and she’s still not done,” Dokic told The Morning Serve.
“They’re both so unique, they play differently and they’re both incredible champions. Ash has really settled into this position of being the world No.1 for three years and has multiple Grand Slam titles, and I think she’s actually going to win a lot more.
“When it comes to their games, I think it would be a very interesting match-up. We know what Serena brings to the table with her power and her serve, and I think Ash has the variety to upset that rhythm and to take away a lot of that power and absorb it.”
There have been many superlatives sent Barty’s way during her run to the final, but there’s one word that Dellacqua does not want her run to be described as: “easy”.
“I feel like using the word ‘easy’ undermines how much work Ash puts in, so I’m not overly comfortable with that,” she said.
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“Sometimes in matches Ash has been down in games and she’s just had so much clarity tactically on what she needs to do.
“That doesn’t come overnight, that’s been years and years of work. I know the work that Ash puts into her body and into her mind.”
Serena Williams may not have seen Barty as a worthy No.1 in the past, but when she makes her return to a tour, she’ll return to a circuit the Aussie has made her very own.