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Tennis champ Ashleigh Barty is on the ball

The fighting, diminutive Australian has brought new excitement to women’s tennis

ht weekend Updated: Jul 05, 2019 17:37 IST
Abhishek Paul
Abhishek Paul
Hindustan Times
Ashleigh Barty,tennis,women's tennis

Ashleigh Barty is world No 1. Ashleigh Barty was on anti-depressants for two years.

Ashleigh Barty is the 2019 French Open champion. Ashleigh Barty was unable to grapple with pressure and quit tennis in 2014.

Barty is the Wimbledon top seed. Barty was a Wimbledon convention-breaker in 2011, when she skipped the champions’ ball after winning the juniors. (“It was just too much,” she had said.)

Ashleigh Barty is a 2018 US Open doubles winner. Ashleigh Barty was a professional cricketer, moving away from tennis in search of a more normal life.

In short, the 23-year old Australian is everything that happens when things go right, and was everything that transpires when things go awry. The journey in between is what Ashleigh Barty is made of.

The stocky star is right on top of her game now, but then having constant companions in snubs and challenges is nothing new to her. Despite being the top seed, the Wimbledon organisers shunted her second round match against Belgium’s Alison Van Uytvanck to court No. 2, instead of centre or No 1 court, which is the place for top seeds. The broadcasters opted for two men’s matches in the centre court and a women’s match involving a British player Johanna Konta. It was non-issue for Barty, as she dispatched her rival in just 55 minutes. Getting the better of on-court rivals and off-court matters is an old habit for her.

Barty first entered into the tennis court a week before she turned five. By the time she was 12, Barty was hitting balls with men’s tennis players double her age at practice sessions. At 14, Barty was on her way to Paris for her first international tour. These tours on the tennis circuit can be a lonely trek, as many former players have testified. For the small girl (she is five foot, five inch now) from Ipswich, Queensland, it was alienating. She cried every night, homesick. She hung on.

Barty’s perfect slices, her impressive serve and volley game, and cheeky chip shots, combined with her supreme athletic abilities, caught everyone’s attention early on. Seven-time Major winner Evonne Goolagong Cawley’s in particular. Barty and Cawley have a lot in common. Both are from Australia, both belong to indigenous tribes. And in 2019, Barty became the first Australian since Cawley to become world No. 1 after 43 years.

But before the circle was completed, Barty had to take a long detour. Her talent was special, yet her vulnerabilities were like those of any other teenager, dealing and sometimes failing with expectations. By her own admission, a part of her still ‘hates tennis’ -- the individuality of it, to be precise, and the resulting attention.

“It happened way too soon (Wimbledon juniors triumph in 2011). I was absolutely cooked. After that it became really tough. It didn’t matter I was the junior world No. 2, it didn’t matter I had won the Wimbledon. For me, I had just come to play tennis. That changed. It was probably the best and the worst thing to have happened to me,” Barty said in ‘My Story’, a series by WTA, the women’s world tennis body.

She tried to persist for a couple of years more and then went blank. Her teenage self could not cope with the constant gaze of those expecting big things from her. She left tennis. Had her family not been supportive, Barty’s talent would have gone astray. They instead encouraged her when Barty built her own house a few blocks away from her parents, when she went fishing and then when she joined the Women’s Big Bash League, a cricket league, in 2015-2016.

In a team sport like cricket, Barty found solace in not being under the radar all alone. But after nine T20 games for Brisbane Heat, her restless self was missing something. It was the same thing that made her leave tennis in the first place. “I missed the competition. I missed the one-on-one battle, the emotions you get from winning and losing matches,” she said. It was February, 2016. She started small, with $25,000 ITF tournaments, and by the end of 2017 she was in the top 20. By 2018, she had won her first Grand Slam (women’s doubles 2018). 2019 French Open triumph only capped her long journey.

For Barty, who has never gone beyond the third round at the All England Club, the expectations are high especially with the plethora of her shots.

The women’s tennis circuit can be far more unforgiving that the men’s. Ranking changes hands often and defending the big titles is generally not the norm, unless you are a Serena Williams. The last six Wimbledon saw five different women’s singles winners. If she falters, one can be sure she will rise again - stronger, higher, better. The girl from Down Under has done it before.

Milestones

Ashleigh Barty, 23, is only the second Australian woman after Evonne Goolagong Cawle (in 1976) to hold the world No 1 rank in tennis. She achieved the feat in June.

Barty was born to Josie and Robert Barty in 1996. Her father is a Ngarigo Indigenous Australian and mother a daughter of English immigrants. Barty is the National Indigenous Tennis Ambassador for Tennis Australia.

She quit tennis for almost two years and played cricket. Her top score in the 2015-16 Women’s Big Bash League is 39 for Brisbane Heat.

When she was away from tennis, fishing was one of her main hobbies.

Barty’s 2019 French Open win was the first for an Australian after Margaret Court’s Roland Garros triumph in 1973.

First Published: Jul 05, 2019 17:37 IST