Top10Matches_2021-7-wide

Over November 29-December 3 and December 6-10, we'll run down our Top 10 Matches of the 2021 season.

No. 10 | No. 9 | No. 8

It’s not easy playing your first Wimbledon final. Just ask Karolina Pliskova. She was frozen for the first four games on Centre Court. She could barely get her arm through the air to hit her serves, which came in at three-quarters speed, or her ground strokes, which she guided into the middle of the court. She had trouble getting her legs to move, too. In the second game, she watched a lob land a few feet away from her and bounce twice without even making a move for it.

Fortunately for Pliskova, it’s not easy closing out your first Wimbledon final, either. Just ask Ash Barty. There she stood, serving for the title at 6-5 in the second set, having led virtually the entire way. She had dreamed of this moment ever since she first stayed up late back in Australia to watch Wimbledon, and heard the names of her country’s legendary champions, from Rod Laver to Evonne Goolagong. And then this consummate pro double faulted, shanked three forehands, and gave the set away.

But that’s what made this year’s Wimbledon women’s final so memorable, entertaining, and nerve-wracking—and made it our seventh-best match of 2021. Instead of letting her anxiety get the better of her, Pliskova loosened up and fired up, and showed off the laser serving and easy shot-making that took her to No. 1 four years ago. As for Barty, instead of letting her missed opportunity at 6-5 drag her down in the third set, she bounced back to take a 3-0 lead, survive another hair-raising attempt to close it out at 5-3, and win 6-3, 6-7 (4), 6-3.

“It was the most incredible feeling I think I’ve ever experienced on a tennis court,” Barty said. “There was certainly disbelief. I’ve worked so hard my whole career with my team and with people that mean the most to me to try and achieve my goals and my dreams."

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WATCH: How Barty finally finished off Pliskova at SW19

Barty has had better stat lines. She made as many errors as winners (29 to 30) and had the same number of double faults as she did aces (seven of each). For all of her skills around the net, it was Pliskova who ventured forward more, and who had more success when she did. But, to reference the Kipling quote that adorns the entrance to Centre Court, Barty found a way to keep disaster at bay.

The first time it loomed was in her opening service game of the third set. Barty led 40-15, only to see Pliskova level at deuce. A few minutes earlier, Barty had been broken while serving for the title, and she had double faulted to give the tiebreaker away. She had to be reeling. But instead of letting the match get any farther out of her control, Barty took a Pliskova return, stepped inside the baseline, and ripped a confident forehand winner. On the next point, she hit an even better drop shot to hold. Barty had stabilized, and she would soon have a 3-0 lead.

There was one more disaster to avert. At 5-3, Barty served for the match for a second time. And for a second time she struggled. A backhand found the net. Then a forehand. Then a swing volley, which she almost never misses. Up 30-15, she was now down break point. Pliskova began the next rally with a return that sailed into the corner and somehow found the baseline. Was the break going to be hers? All Barty could do was try to put the ball back into the court any way she could. She reflexed it high and deep, and made Pliskova keep playing. That was enough, as the Czech eventually overhit a backhand wide. Barty followed with an ace for championship point, and then watched as a Pliskova backhand found the net.

“I think there was some up-and-downs,” Barty said. Even after a career-making victory at Wimbledon, she was as matter-of-fact as ever.

“Of course, horrible start,” a smiling Pliskova admitted of her own performance. “That’s why I’m more like proud about how I find a way back in that match. I mean, not really close to winning, but it was one set all after.”

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To reference the Kipling quote that adorns the entrance to Centre Court, Barty found a way to keep disaster at bay.

A smooth game, beautiful timing, a casually sonic serve, an easygoing attitude, and a smile in defeat: Let’s hope Pliskova has bounced back for good, and that we see her in moments like this—on the winning side—again.

When it was over, Barty brought back memories of another Aussie champion. In 1987, Pat Cash was the first winner to make his way to his player box to celebrate with his family. Barty did the same, but not before she briefly got lost along the way. At the start of the Open era, Australia owned Centre Court: Men from Down Under have won the title six times since 1968, and women three. But Barty’s is the first since Lleyton Hewitt’s in 2002, and the first on the women’s side since Evonne Goolagong’s in 1980.

“The stars aligned for me over the past fortnight,” Barty said. “Incredible that it happened to fall on the 50th Anniversary of Evonne's first title here, too.”

“It’s coming home,” was the phrase of the day in London in July, when England’s soccer team was playing for the Euro Cup. We could have said the same about Ash Barty, who brought the Wimbledon title back to one of its homes, and did it all in classic Aussie-legend style—with a polished and varied game, a sporting and understated attitude, and the ability to face triumph and disaster and treat them just the same.