Wimbledon 2021: Ashleigh Barty wins a nerve-jangling, topsy-turvy, grenade-for-a-ball final to become women's champ

In what everyone had been calling the most open women’s championship for years, neither finalist wanted to win it. For one dreadful moment it seemed like they might invite all the other 126 competitors back to Wimbledon to start the whole thing again. But eventually, at long last, and about time, too, Ashleigh Barty held her nerve to lift the trophy.

Barty receives the trophy from the Duchess of Cambridge
Barty receives the trophy from the Duchess of Cambridge

Was the Venus Rosewater Dish too big and too garish for a barbie in Barty’s Australia or a pork-stew dinner in Karolina Pliskova’s Czech Republic? You might have thought so from how Pliskova went about the opening games, failing to win a single point for what must have felt like an eternity.

And what happened to Barty when she was 6-3 and 3-1 up? Or a few minutes later when she was serving for the match? Pliskova arrived with her famed serve and, early on, looked like she was striking the ball with a plank of wood or a rusty shovel. Barty came to Centre Court with a whole box of tricks but at times looked like she’d lost the key.

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Blame nerves. This was valid, even if it produced a chaotic final. Tom Cruise was in the crowd and not being very inconspicuous about it. You hoped a stray shot - and there were many - might hit the movie superstar on the head but sadly there wasn’t much incidental comedy in the contest either.

It was the first Wimbledon showpiece for both women but there the similarities seemed to end. It was sleek super-yacht vs pocket battleship, 6ft 1ins vs 5/5-and-a-half (don’t forget the half). On one side of the net No 1 seed Barty, expressive on and off court with her quirky Oz-isms and fun tales of taking extended time out from tennis to play cricket and golf. On the other side a classic east European ice queen. The lack of emotion is a hoary, moth-eaten cliche of players from Pliskova’s part of the world that the 8th seed seems only too happy to pack in her giant rucksack.

Maybe, though, the two had something else in common: just because it was their first Wimbledon final didn’t mean there wasn’t desperation to win. In Barty’s case there was the pull of this being the 50th anniversary of the first title of her compatriot, mentor and idol Evonne Goolagong Cawley, just one of many Australians whose triumphs have ensured Wimbledon remains the most cherished Slam in the land Down Under. Plus, the specific pressure of trying to emulate Goolagong, a fellow indigenous Australian revered by all who remember her here. Barty wore a tribute dress and hoped it would inspire.

For Pliskova there were the issues and doubts surrounding her being the best player never to have won a major, the player who is now cracking on at 29, who prompted many to assume her moment had passed. Well, maybe late in the day and on the back of lousy form coming into the tournament, it would arrive.

After her semi-final victory over Aryna Sabalenka, and hopefully with the scary grunts which accompanied the Belarussian’s booming serve no longer echoing in her ears, the Czech was facing a subtler and more complex challenge: the many and varied shot-making skills of Barty and not least that wicked slice backhand.

I've won! Australia's Ashleigh Barty can't quite believe she's Wimbledon champion

Barty - serious face under the big brim of her cap - opened to love and quickly had Pliskova in bother. Jittery, she couldn’t score off her own serve, only hitting modest mph, and was left stranded by a high Barty lob. Next game: love again. Surely she wasn’t going to repeat Rome where she was double-bageled?

She didn’t seem to be moving. The super-yacht looked like it was about to run aground. At least compared with the furiously scampering Barty. Then, finally, a point. Huge cheer. But a double fault handed Barty a 4-0 lead. Pliskova needed some good fortune, and this arrived with a surprise bunch of unforced errors from Barty, to finally get on the scoreboard.

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Maybe it had been too easy for Barty. Pliskova cranked up her serve but Barty after that blip got her running again and she was broken again. Barty served for the set but couldn’t complete the job at that moment. Five of the seven games thus far had been service breaks.

One set down, Pliskova needed to resume a whole lot better. But she lost her serve again. The final looked all but over. Then Pliskova cast off the diving boots and started to move. She struck an ace - remember them? Barty wobbled, the comeback was on, only for Pliskova to slap a casual shot into the net. It was as if the player with the catwalk-model hauteur had suddenly resolved not to do bending down. But in fact, movement or lack of it has always dogged her.

Surely Barty was going to win it now. No, she’d clammed up again. And Pliskova hardly needed to move if she was going to continue hitting the ball so hard and true. But it was a ladies’ excuse-me of a final. The ball became a hot potato, a grenade. You have the title. No, you - I insist.

Pliskova was holding serve comfortably but, really, the term was completely relative. No one was comfortable out there. Bizarre game followed bizarre game. Twice in quick succession Hawkeye came to Barty’s aid with millimetre calls. She served for the match, for the glory, but of course there would be another twist and another set.

Then, out of nowhere, brilliant tennis. Stupendous rallies which matched any Tom Cruise blockbuster for too-far-fetched ridiculousness. It looked like this pair were going to be slugging it out all night, all year, only for Barty to grab the prize - and the plate.

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