Ashleigh Barty: the journey from Big Bash League to French Open winner
The Australian reflects on her rise up to world No 2 in the women's rankings in 2019
Ashleigh Barty gives a little chuckle when she realises she is only 23 but has already done a full decade of traveling around the world to hit a tennis ball over the net.
She’s done it so well that she became Australia’s first French Open singles champion since 1973 in Paris on Saturday.
A Wimbledon junior champion at the age of 15, and a three-time grand slam women’s doubles runner-up just a year later at 16, Barty was every bit the definition of a child prodigy on the tennis circuit.
But her road from talented teen to major winner was long and winding; hers in particular included a 21-month break from tennis (from September 2014 to June 2016) during which she took up professional cricket, competing in Australia’s Big Bash League with the Brisbane Heat.
She returned to tennis three years ago, reigniting her passion for the sport and on Monday she became the new world No 2 after lifting the Coupe Suzanne-Lenglen at Roland Garros, with victory over Marketa Vondrousova in the final.
Barty believes she would never have been in this position had she not walked away from tennis four and a half years ago.
There is a photo that has gone viral of a tiny-looking Barty posing with one of the first trophies she’d ever won back home in Brisbane. She remembers what it felt like playing tennis at that age, and says recapturing that feeling is what led her to her French Open success.
“It was fun, it was enjoyable, it was the most authentic way to play tennis and I feel like I'm able to touch on that a little bit more now and to recreate that enjoyment and that authenticity and I'm loving every minute,” Barty told a small group of reporters.
Authenticity and enjoyment – two words that instantly come to mind when you’re watching Barty paint a tennis court with every shot imaginable in the handbook.
There is deep meaning to her journey and she is keen to utilise it to inspire others. She’s proud to lead the way for Indigenous Australians, following in the footsteps of her idol, seven-time major winner Evonne Goolagong Cawley, and also hopes to provide a good example for other young talents who might struggle with their transition from juniors to seniors.
“It was a little bit scary when I actually realised that my first trip overseas was 10 years ago to Paris and it was pretty special to have that kind of pop up in my mind over the last two weeks, it's kind of the decade of my career really,” reflects Barty.
“It was my first international tournament and it was my first taste of international tennis and my God it was terrible, it was scary, I hated every minute, but what a journey that I've been on and it's just been - particularly the last three or four years has been amazing.”
She adds: “I think tennis is a very unique sport, that it can happen very quickly and when a lot of girls and guys are at a very young age – I mean, you can play professionally when you're 13 or 14, I think, officially. So I think it's about creating your own path, creating your own journey, and embracing it.
“There's no formula how to become a professional tennis player. It's your own, it's unique, your own journey, your own path, your own experiences. I think the best thing to do is learn from your mistakes, learn from every single experience that you have, whether it's good or bad. That's the only way to go about it, only way to grow as a person and as a player.”
The Queenslander owns a rare combination of feel, high tennis IQ, and power. She can slice-and-dice, volley for days, but also left Roland Garros with the highest ace count among the women, firing 38 through her seven matches.
Her attractive game style is the envy of her peers, and the reason why so many stars, from both tours, consider her their favourite player to watch.
“It's just been an incredible journey, the way we have tried to work and develop and grow this game that I have and this game style and kind of Ash Barty brand of tennis, I suppose. It's amazing,” Barty said.
She credits her first coach, Jim Joyce, for developing her style. She would watch all those players that had flair and try to copy them.
“But my coach always used to bring me back and say, ‘We're creating our style’. I think that's probably one of the most magical things that's happened to me,” she recalls.
Although she always said clay was her least favourite surface, Barty says she entered this part of the season this year with a new attitude towards it. Winning the French Open was definitely a huge surprise for her though.
“One of the messages that came through from Ash was basically: 'Did that really happen? I won a grand slam on clay!'” Joyce told the Sydney Morning Herald.
Wimbledon seems like the obvious next goal for Barty, with her game perfectly tailored for grass.
Martina Navratilova told British TV that she considers the young Aussie a favourite for the title at the All England Club but the level-headed Barty is not ready to set new goals just yet.
“I think for the moment, it's kind of difficult to set goals. We have to take a moment to celebrate what we have achieved,” she said. “We have worked so hard to put ourselves in these positions and every single person in my team deserves to celebrate this.
"We've had an incredible couple of weeks. The stars have aligned for us. And in a couple days' time, we will sit down and continue to work, chip away every single day and try and get better as a player and then work on our goals from there.”
Updated: June 10, 2019 02:27 PM