Alison Riske of the United States has long been one of the more effective grass-courters in the women’s game. She may not have the thunderous serve or bruising power off the ground that were once the hallmarks of the great grass-courters, but the game has moved on. More valuable now is the ability to take the ball on the rise and hit with accuracy. Speed of thought and movement have replaced the ability to hit the cover off the ball as the most valuable weapons in a grass-courters armoury.
French Open and Birmingham Classic champion, world #1 Ashleigh Barty has both qualities in abundance. She also has a deadly accurate serve and a wicked slice backhand, surely the most effective in the women’s game. And she arrived into her fourth-round clash with Riske in imperious form, having won all three of her matches in the first week of the Championships at a canter. Indeed, she had dropped just two games in dispatching home hope Harriet Dart in the round of 32.
The Australian began sharply, striking four aces in the first game of the match and went on to claim the first set 6-3. But if Riske was disheartened by that, she did not show it. This is, after all, a player who has rather developed a taste for comebacks of late. At the Rosmalen Grass Court Championships last month, she reached the final only to lose the first set to love against Kiki Bertens, the Dutch #1, but rallied to win the title in three sets.
She showed more of the same fighting spirit against Barty, trusting in her movement and defensive skills, as well as excellent depth, to prevent the world’s best from playing the sort of first-strike tennis that makes her so effective. And by doing so, she turned the match around. An early break in the second signalled the shift in momentum, one that Riske would refuse to let go of. She broke again to seal the second set 6-2 to level the match and send it into a decider.
In the third, there was little to choose between the pair. But Riske made her move at just the right moment, imposing herself on Barty’s serve in the eighth game of the set to get the break and secure for herself a chance to serve for the match and a place in her first Grand Slam quarterfinal. She served it out nervelessly, claiming the famous win when Barty sent a backhand wide into the tramlines on Court 2, once again the graveyard of champions.
The American’s reward is a shot at her compatriot, 23-time Grand Slam champion Serena Williams, who has looked in ominous form in the past few days, dispatching Julia Goerges and Carla Suarez Navarro with an ease bordering on contemptuous. But Riske has shown that she can mix with the best of them at Wimbledon and will surely feel confident heading into their quarterfinal clash. It could well be a match to remember.
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