To use Serena Williams’ word, Australia’s outrage was just a little bit cute.
Sam Groth led the backlash to Williams’ surprise that Ashleigh Barty was the new world No.1 for Wimbledon, branding the American legend’s reaction an “absolute disgrace”. There was an element of cultural cringe to it, an inherent immaturity.
It was little Australia worrying about what big sibling America thought. Wanting a pat on the head for being good. Chip firmly on the shoulder at the first sign of any slight.
Becoming the No.1 ranked player in the world was all the validation that Barty needed, especially with a French Open win to her credit; even if Groth was right that Williams’ reaction seemed “condescending”. Serena has always been more a far more gracious winner than loser.
Perhaps Williams, who subsequently gave Barty plenty of compliments, just had better things to worry about. Rankings have long been irrelevant to her; she is the world’s best player when fit and focused. She’s seen many other No.1 players come and go. And she’s also nearing the end of her career, with a young daughter to prioritise over hitting a yellow ball.
As it turns out, Williams is now preparing for a Wimbledon quarter-final against world No.55 Alison Riske rather than Barty. For once, she didn’t have to answer a single loaded press question about the Australian, who was unable to live up to her No.1 billing and book a showdown.
After Australia got its first French Open champion in 46 years and first Grand Slam winner since Sam Stosur in 2011, there was no stopping the Barty hype train. Aussie icon Rod Laver predicted that she would win Wimbledon and reiterated before her fourth round match that he’d be surprised if she didn’t at least make the final.
The final 16 was the best she should manage after her serve let her down against the firing Riske, right when a quarter-final against Serena was there for the taking.
No worries. Barty, 23, is a wonderful tennis player, seemingly an even better person and she’ll no doubt go further at the All England Club in future.
But for now, to Williams, she’s just the latest flash in the pan challenger.
Serena ‘condescending’ to Barty: Groth
Wondering why Serena has a hard time keeping track of the world No.1? Check out the stats.
Since Serena first claimed the world No.1 ranking in July 2002, there have been 16 different world No.1 players. The top ranking has changed hands 45 times, with Serena reaching No.1 on eight different occasions.
The top ranking has changed a few times a year, on average, and only a handful of those players can consider calling themselves Serena’s peer. None have proven serious rivals to her greatness.
Since Serena’s first of 23 Grand Slam titles (1999 US Open), only three players have won five or more majors: Venus Williams (7), Justine Henin (7) and Maria Sharapova (5). Venus has never reclaimed the No.1 ranking after Serena took top spot from her 17 years ago.
Here are all the world No.1s since Serena: Kim Clijsters, Henin, Amélie Mauresmo, Lindsay Davenport, Sharapova, Ana Ivanovic, Jelena Jankovic, Dinara Safina, Caroline Wozniacki, Victoria Azarenka, Angelique Kerber, Karolina Pliskova, Garbine Muguruza, Simona Halep, Naomi Osaka and Barty.
Their total weeks as No.1 (after Serena first took top spot): 569, against Serena’s 319.
Their total Grand Slams (after Serena’s first major): 38, against Serena’s 23.
Serena is the dominant force, beyond all precedent. Serena’s record head-to-head with even the best players shows that only Henin had her measure, to some degree.
Serena vs Henin: 8-6; 3-4 in Grand Slams, 1-0 in Slam finals.
Serena vs Venus: 18-13; 11-5 in Grand Slams, 7-2 in Slam finals.
Serena vs Sharapova: 19-3; 7-2 in Grand Slams (including a walkover for Sharapova), 3-1 in Slam finals.
Kerber is an anomaly thus far: she is 2-1 against Williams in Slam finals, though she is 2-2 in all Slam matches and 3-6 across their careers. Stosur, Muguruza and Osaka are 1-0 against Serena in major finals, while Osaka is the only significant current player with a winning record over Serena across their careers (2-0).
Barty is 0-2 against Serena. And when we consider the challenge that was facing Barty at the All England Club – who was the last player to win the French Open and Wimbledon back-to-back?
Serena Williams, of course, in 2015 to complete the second ‘Serena Slam’. Before that? Serena again, to start the 2002-03 ‘Serena Slam’.
Beyond that again, we’re still in the domain of legends: Steffi Graf (four times), Martina Navratilova (twice), Chris Evert, Billie Jean King, plus Aussie greats Evonne Goolagong and Margaret Court soon after the Open era began.
On one hand, all Barty failed to do at Wimbledon was leap straight into all-time great territory; to live up to the excitable hopes of her sports-mad country.
On the other, she did what the majority of Serena’s would-be rivals have done over the years: came and went quickly. Perhaps we should not have been so surprised.
If you look at Barty’s French Open win objectively: she beat no big names. No Grand Slam winners. No top-10 players. That in no way lessened her achievement, but it should have tempered expectations about her prospects of going back-to-back at Wimbledon.
Madison Keys, the 14th seed who she beat in the quarter-finals, was the Australian’s biggest scalp in Paris. She defeated 19-year-old Marketa Vondrousova, ranked world No.38, in the final after beating 17-year-old Amanda Anisimova, ranked No.51, in the semis.
Bigger-name players tumbled out of eighth-seeded Barty’s way all week, affording her a dream run. Grand Slam draws rarely open up so nicely; it is unlikely she’ll get such a path to a major trophy again.
The player who knocked her out of Roland Garros the previous year: Serena. Barty’s first loss against Serena was at the 2014 Australian Open when she was a kid, yet to have her career-altering break from tennis. It counts for little; yet beating Serena for the first time, as a serious player, will mean plenty. That is real validation.
Wimbledon was Barty’s first time dealing with the circus that comes with being No.1. Two narratives caught fire which were both justified and unhelpful: scheduling slights by both Wimbledon and Australian broadcaster Channel Seven, plus the perceived disrespect from Serena.
Barty shrugged off the scheduling stuff and also preemptive questions about facing Serena in the quarter-finals. Yet it was unwelcome noise and Wednesday night’s defeat proved that she had bigger problems to worry about.
“It would hurt, because she looks at Wimbledon, grasscourts, as her best surface,” Australian tennis great Todd Woodbridge said of Barty’s loss on the TODAY Show.
“The reality is, and before the tournament started, I said if Ash was to go deep, it would be an exceptional effort. I actually thought that once she got through to the round of 16, she’d be more on her way.
“But she hit the flattest match she’s hit in the last 12 weeks. And let’s remember, she’s been on the road for 12 straight weeks.
“She has had a week off from playing a tournament, but she had media commitments, she became the world No.1, she had all of these new experiences that have just created a different life for her. Her life will never be the same after winning in Roland Garros.
“I think she’s actually handled it so well. What she needs now is just a little bit of time away from the game, to recharge the batteries and refocus.”
After a restful month, Barty will resume her season and chase victory at the US Open, where Stosur beat Serena in the final in 2011. It will be the calm before the green-and-gold storm.
Next year’s Australian Open will be a zoo: front and centre of billboards, extraordinary media interest, enormous expectations of success, rested opponents and a non-preferred surface. She will hope to improve on this year’s quarter-final appearance, but it won’t be easy.
Stosur has a 4-8 record at Melbourne Park since winning the US Open, including five round one losses; including at the tournament immediately following her lone major win. She did not enjoy the crushing pressure of playing at home, with Australia not having toasted a local Open champion since Goolagong in 1977.
Barty’s predecessor as world No.1, Naomi Osaka, already presents as a cautionary tale. Though she is a far different personality to the relaxed Australian, the pressure of becoming a sudden superstar has hit the Japanese ace hard.
Since winning the US Open and Australian Open consecutively, Osaka lost in round three at Roland Garros and walked out of a press conference at Wimbledon near tears after a round one defeat. If getting to the top of tennis is hard, staying there is even more difficult.
These are storms that Serena has weathered many times over. As rivals have come and gone, she has amassed arguably the greatest CV in tennis history; even before her anticipated overhauling of Court’s record of 24 Grand Slam singles titles.
If you want the genuine respect of Serena Williams, you have to earn it. Barty is well on her way, with Australia at her back; but right now, she’s a fledgling No.1 hoping to prove that she’s capable of winning multiple majors and enjoying a sustained reign at the top.
Barty’s best asset is her attitude. She was disappointed but not rattled by her Wimbledon exit. She offered wonderful perspective.
“I didn’t win a tennis match. It’s not the end of the world. It’s a game,” she said.
“I love playing the game. I do everything in my power to try and win every single tennis match, but that’s not the case.
“It’s disappointing right now. Give me an hour or so, we’ll be all good. The sun’s still going to come up tomorrow.”
It will. This final 16 appearance was actually Barty’s best-ever result at Wimbledon. There are no doubt better to come.