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Wimbledon 2021: Our experts preview Ash Barty-Karolina Pliskova women’s final

After a hiatus last year, we have finally reached our first Wimbledon final since 2019 with world No. 1 Ashleigh Barty taking on Karolina Pliskova in a tantalizing battle.

There has been a renewed sense of excitement about the courts over the past two weeks as fans returned to the stands. While thoughts of COVID-19 lingered with strict protocols for both competitors and fans, that hasn’t overshadowed the fact that we have been treated to some exceptional matches.

Barty, 25, is the first Australian woman to reach a Wimbledon final since Evonne Goolagong Cawley. Barty has worn a kit honoring her legendary predecessor all tournament, and that inspiration was clear to see in the top seed’s victory over former champion Angelique Kerber in the semifinal.

Barty has never won at Wimbledon, but she does bring significant experience over Pliskova in the final. The No. 8 seed has never won a major title, and Barty has an advantage over her in their head-to-heads (5-2).

So what can Pliskova do to derail Barty’s march toward the title? ESPN analysts Rennae Stubbs, Pam Shriver and James Blake looked at the key elements and previewed the match.

The experience factor

Stubbs: I think both players will be very nervous. Even though both have played in Slam finals before, Wimbledon final day is different. The reverence of this title is second to none, so the importance of it is significant. Who will handle the pressure the best?

Shriver: I think they both have similar experience. They have both been to one major final and they have played in a lot of big matches away from the majors. They’re both going to be as nervous as they have ever been — it’s a Wimbledon final. But I think they have the chops and the experience to settle in, and I actually think it is going to be a really interesting final. I’ve been impressed with how both players are playing their best tennis going into the final. Barty has improved every round and has confidence after suffering a hip injury at the French Open, which is no longer an issue. It’s going to be tough to break serve. I want to see Pliskova and how she comes into that. I think if she can come in and really pressure the Barty backhand, that could be an important tactical move. I don’t think enough people have challenged the Barty backhand coming in.

Blake: Barty is the only one who has the Slam title, so I think there could be some nerves for Pliskova. I think it weighs much more heavily on her since — for a while now — she has been probably the best player in the world (even reaching No. 1) not to have a Slam. So I think there’s just a lot more weighing down on her compared to Barty, who has been there before, and I think she is a little more comfortable and natural on the surface as well.

What are Pliskova’s strengths and what does she need to do to challenge Barty?

Stubbs: Pliskova’s serve is her most important shot. If her first serve percentage is at least in the high 60s, she has a chance, depending on how aggressive she is coming forward. In my opinion, she needs to use her forehand to try to get in on the Barty backhand. If she is coming in at least 15-20 times, she can win.

Shriver: Pliskova’s main strength is that she has dropped serve only four times. She has been very confident with holding serve. She did lose serve once against Aryna Sabalenka on a double fault to end the first set, but to her credit that was the last time she lost serve for the whole semifinal against a big returner. I also think that Pliskova is moving as well as I have seen her move and playing just enough finesse shots. She doesn’t want to get into a finesse war with Barty because she will lose that, but just occasionally she can handle Barty’s finesse with a slice backhand. I think it is going to be a good final.

Blake: She has a huge serve. One of the best serves in the women’s game. She’s got a big forehand. She’s got first-strike tennis, so it’s relatively straightforward, whereas Barty has a lot more nuance to her game. For Pliskova, she just has to get off the mark really quickly, keep playing attacking tennis and not let Barty really move her around. She’s got to be controlling the center of the court and the one taking the first chances.

What has been the key for Barty?

Stubbs: For Barty, serve is just as important. Both of these players need a first serve percentage in the high 60s to be effective. Her second serve is better then Pliskova’s, but she still doesn’t want to give too many chances in her serve with the way Pliskova is serving.

Shriver: Gaining confidence in her movement and being back to 100% after she had to pull out at the French. Just relying back on her 1-2 punch — the serve and the forehand — and relying on her two shots that have gotten her to No. 1. Also, her slice on grass court pays more dividends than on other surfaces, so that has been really helpful for her, too. It stays so low and she also has sidespin on it. So some players, especially on the forehand side, hate that.

Blake: She has just been playing her game, in my opinion. I don’t think she’s playing above herself, going for too much or going for anything that is outside her comfort zone. She just has a great game for grass. The slices are better and she has been using them much more effectively and more often on the grass than she has on other surfaces. So I think she is playing the right way and is doing all the stuff she is supposed to be doing. I think the biggest hurdle coming in for her was whether she was healthy. Well, she has been healthy enough to get to the finals.

Predictions

Stubbs: I picked Barty to win and I am sticking with it. I think her variety is the key, and she’ll win if she uses her slice to make Pliskova uncomfortable and move her side to side. This is the battle of the two best servers in women’s tennis, so whoever has better stats in this category will win, but I’m picking Barty.

Shriver: I picked Barty beforehand, but if you told me she would face an in-form Pliskova who has dropped serve only four times, I’d be a little nervous. You don’t expect to have an easy major final. It is going to be who wins those two to three big points. Maybe a tiebreak in one of the two big sets will be crucial — I think both players are ready. This is what a major does. The buildup of six matches going into the final, you’re going into this seventh match, so you’re now ready to go. There’s very little to distract them. They can only go between the club and the hotel bubble, and it is like having blinders on, so let’s go.

Blake: I think Barty is going to win because she has more of an all-round game for grass, more suited for it. I think she is going to handle the pace and the power of Pliskova’s serve and big forehand. I think Barty moves well enough and will keep it outside her strike zone well enough to win.

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