My interview with Mona Barthel - Star in the Making
Last week I had the opportunity to witness a player who could be a new star in the making.
Her name is Mona Barthel from Germany and she received a confidence boost by winning the WTA Paris Indoor event at the Stade de Coubertin. Mona won the title in style winning all of her matches in straight sets at the business end of the tournament with an incredible display of attacking tennis which the Parisians enjoyed immensely.
A friend of mine who works for the WTA tour told me 12 months ago to check out Mona Barthel, he was convinced that she is the most talented of the German players coming through and has the most potential if she believed in herself and things fell into place. That’s the beauty and difficult thing about top level sport, identifying potential and hopefully watching it come to fruition. Some players can take a bit longer to realise it, but what that means is when they are ready to fulfil their potential, they are mature enough to stay there and deal with the inevitable highs and lows top level competition brings.
Perhaps in Paris we saw the start of that potential starting to be realised. I’ve been watching and commenting on tennis for exactly 20 years and every so often you see a player with a game that seems to be a notch above the others. I recall watching Pete Sampras play defending champion Andre Agassi at Wimbledon in 1993 and thinking this guy was going to be really good because he had great shotmaking ability. I also remember watching Justine Henin in 2000 at the Canadian Open with her backhand and thinking wow. And in 2011 even though Petra Kvitova lost the Eastbourne final, I left the stadium convinced she would win Wimbledon (wish I put a bet on that…)
Why do I think Mona is a bit special? She plays a brand of tennis that is getting rarer and rarer in both the mens and womens game. Surface speeds have had a part to play in that but I’ve also often wondered if state of mind and willingness to play a certain style is a factor.
In the Paris indoor quarterfinal, Mona defeated Marion Bartoli, breaking Marion’s usually strong fighting spirit which is rare to see. The first set went to a tiebreaker after an exchange of breaks and Marion took a 6-2 lead and you would have thought that was the set; but Mona saved 4 set points in a row with bold play to take the tiebreak 9-7 which left the Parisian crowd bemused and perplexed. I’ve watched Marion play many times over the years in Eastbourne (where she won the title), Wimbledon and Paris but this was the first time I’ve seen her beaten before a match is over.
That is what a player serving well can do, it gives them confidence to raise their return level which in turn can give a level of hopelessness to an opponent. That is what Barthel did to her opponents last week in Paris, if she was playing well her opponents felt they didn’t have much of a chance.
Mona plays what used to be referred to as the big game, she has superior talent to impose her game regardless of the opponent. This type of game involves been prepared to take risks on the serve, take to the net and go for the returns in a controlled but aggressive fashion. It sounds simple but is not easy to do, it takes a combination of been blessed with natural power, having a certain mentality and using conventional grips for economy and efficiency of movement.
Mona possesses all of these attributes and is quite tall as well which helps. Her willingness to get to net is a joy to watch , and her volley technique is very good, she puts slice on forehand volleys and not just push the ball which so many modern players do which leads to unforced errors so often. Her half volleys were superb; on one point in the final against Errani, she came in and hit a half volley in the corner for a clean winner which left Errani stunned, the sort of stuff Sampras used to do. The guy next to me was getting very excited, saying things like “magnifique!”
Mona is also willing to hit shots down the line off both wings either for winners or to stretch her opponent so she can come in to net and take floating balls out of the air. Her movement is quite good for a tall player and she is willing to scramble to stay in the rally until she can get a possibility to get the point on her terms. But what I found really stood out was her serve. Mona has potentially the best serve in the world after Serena Williams and could take over as the best server in the world once Serena leaves the scene.
I have often discussed that the technical standard of serving today is not quite up there. There are many players who can serve fast on the first serve but not many can serve with real precision and deception at pace. Mona is already mastering the key serves that should take her game to the next level; the slider serve on the deuce and ad court, the big serve down the middle and a strong 2nd serve.
Having these 3 components whilst possessing the ability to hit lines means the returner has to get into the guessing game, which always makes for a great spectacle for those interested in thinking man’s tennis, the returner has to adjust and come up with something. Her service motion in many ways is reminiscent of a young Pete Sampras in terms in terms of smoothness and good knee bend and the ability to come over the ball with slice and topspin at pace; it is an elegant service motion. Mona’s strong 2nd serve will be needed should she progress up the rankings and start to challenge for major tournaments in future.
Having put together such an exciting game is a tribute to her coaching staff. In my article “The match that changed tennis” I mentioned that future aggressive players coming through will depend on coaches and young players willing to buck the trend of the safe counterpunching style of play and show that risk and reward tennis can still a viable tactic at the top level. Make no mistake, risk and reward in a controlled fashion, not hitting wild shots and racking up a large amount of errors.
The combination of having a great serve and a great game to back it up is an exciting combination which can take a player to the very top. Players like Lindsay Davenport, Venus and Serena Williams have shown that in recent times. If Mona Barthel can keep improving, working hard, continue to build her self-belief and study the past masters, she might one day become a household name and be a contender at the major tournaments and hopefully win the big prizes.
Mona was kind enough to answer some questions after her win in Paris last week:
1. Congratulations on winning the title at the WTA Paris indoor event (Open GDF Suez). A lot of great players have won there in the 20 years of its existence, including Martina Navratilova, Steffi Graf, Serena Williams and Amelie Mauresmo. How does it feel to win such a prestigious event?
Thank you. It is amazing to win such a "big" tournament. So many great players have won it before. It came really unexpected to me. I was so happy, when I won the first round. And then I won match by match and suddenly I was in the final. I beat three players in the Top 15, so it was a great week for me. When I read the names of the former champions, it is quite unreal for me to be on the same list. But of course, it is a good feeling
2. You were able to win the quarterfinal, semifinal and final in straight sets, against last year’s finalist Marion Bartoli and French Open finalist Sara Errani. How much confidence do you feel such a win would give you as your career develops?
This tournament was some kind of a breakthrough for me, because last year I had a lot of close matches against the top players, but I wasn't able to win them. In Paris it was different, especially in the tough moments, I was able to play my best tennis.
3. Last summer I interviewed Angelique Kerber and pointed out that there were a crop of young German players coming through and doing very well on the WTA tour and pushing each other up the rankings. What do you think is the reason or factor in so many players coming through at a similar age?
It's true, there are so many good German players right now, which is really nice to see. But to be quite honest, I don't know a reason for it. I think a lot of things has to come together, to have so many good players. But what we have, is a good atmosphere. We are supporting each other and like you said " pushing each other up the rankings".
4. I am fascinated with your serving ability, when I watched you in Paris your service motion reminded me of a young Pete Sampras from the early 1990s in terms of smoothness and technicality. How did you develop such a technically strong serve? Is it something you worked on a lot or is it something that came naturally?
Well first of all, thank you very much. It's really nice to get compared with such a good server. I always had a good serve, but it wasn't always consistent. I was working on it in the offseason a lot, trying to get a higher first serve percentage and getting a more aggressive second serve. And it improved a lot and it is helping me so much on court.
5. Your willingness to get to net is refreshing in an era where many players are content to stay back and keep the rallies going or only going to net “to shake hands” as they say; you are also happy to take the ball out of the air and throw in the odd serve and volley. Is there a reason you enjoy coming to net so much, or do you adopt certain strategies depending on opponents?
Well I think it is coming naturally. If I feel, I have a good chance to go to the net, I take it. I enjoy playing volleys and it suits my game as well.
6. Which players did you admire and enjoy most when you were growing up?
When I was young, I really liked Steffi Graf. She was playing so nice and was so successful. And I think, she has a great personality as well. I was wearing the same clothes like her and had the same racquet. Even if people asked for my name, I said it's "Steffi". They didn't believe me and wanted to know my real name. But I said " It's Steffi, you can see, I am wearing her clothes". I was about 4 or 5 at that time
. But I still admire her.
7. Which players would you have liked to play from the past and why?
I would choose Steffi Graf. Like I said, she was my idol growing up and it would be great to play with her.
8. What would you say are your medium to long term goals for your career?
I am more focussing on my game rather than my ranking. If I am improving and playing better tennis, my ranking will go up automatically.
9. What do you think are your greatest strengths on a tennis court?
I would say, my strength is my love for the game. I just enjoy playing tennis and playing against the best players in the world. In my opinion, that is the most important thing.
10. What things do you like to do outside of tennis?
I like to do a lot off the court. I think, it's really important to have a balanced life and not to think all the time about tennis. For example I created and I am still updating my own website. In the offseason I designed and sewed two of my tennis dresses. I did it for the first time and it is a nice feeling to wear your own dresses. Otherwise, if I have the chance, I like to see things of the places, I am visiting. Last year I went to a lot of musicals and museums, which I really enjoyed.