Barty is first hometown Aussie Champ in 44 years
  | By Brian Coleman
Photo Credit: David Mariuz/Tennis Australia

 

The year is 1978. Laverne & Shirley is the most popular show on television, John Travolta and Olivia Newton-John dazzled the big screen in Grease, and in the fall, the Yankees’ Bucky Dent will break the hearts of Red Sox fans with his infamous homerun.

That same year, Australia’s Chris O’Neil won the Australian Open. And for four decades, the Aussie faithful were left without a hometown champion. That changed in late-January of this year, when Ashleigh Barty put together a dominant two-week performance in Melbourne.

Barty, the top-ranked woman in the world, entered the event as the favorite and made good on those expectations, ensuring that the Daphne Akhurst Memorial Cup remains in Australia. In the finals, she defeated American Danielle Collins 6-3, 7-6(2) to win her third career major title.

“As an Aussie, the most important part of this tournament is being able to share it with so many people,” said Barty during the trophy ceremony. “You guys today in the crowd have been nothing short of exceptional. This crowd is one of the most fun I’ve ever played in front of and you guys brought me so much joy out here today. You relaxed me and you forced me to play my best tennis and against a champion like Danielle, I know I had to absolutely bring that today.”

Barty has always been proud of her Australian heritage, and the array of players from Down Under who have paved the way for her, including Rod Laver, for whom the main court at the Australian Open is named for. Born in Queensland, Barty began her tennis journey at the age of four and quickly became a highly-decorated junior player. She won the Wimbledon junior title in 2011, and was on her way to becoming the next great Aussie player.


Ash Barty rips a running forehand during the 2022 Australian Open Women's Singles final. (Photo Credit: Mark Peterson/Tennis Australia)

 

“As Aussies, we’re exceptionally lucky to be a Grand Slam nation,” said Barty after the victory. “To get to experience to play at home is really special, and to be here as a champion of the tournament is really exciting. We’re extremely lucky to have the tennis history and the rich history that we do, particularly here at the Australian Open. But across all Grand Slams, we’ve had champions that have stemmed back years and years, and have really set the platform for us to come through and try to do what we do and create our own path...to be a very small part of an amazing history in tennis as an Australian is really, really neat.”

While she is being modest, as you’d expect from Barty, she has more than just a small part in Australian tennis history, but took a unique path to get there. As a young girl growing up constantly playing tennis and making it onto the pro tour, there came a time where Barty became disillusioned from the sport; she was burnt out, plain and simple.

So following the 2014 U.S. Open, at the age of 18 and with her ranking outside of the top 200 in singles, she made the decision to step away from tennis, return home to Australia and find herself again.

“I felt like I got twisted and maybe a little bit lost along the way in the first part of my career, just within myself mentally and what I wanted to do,” she said. “I was very lucky to have a lot of success, but I’m still very much a homebody and I kind of lost my way a little bit with not being able to connect with my family. I even think I kind of got disconnected with my family in a way. We didn’t have the same conversation, the same depth of conversation. We didn’t lose that love or that care, but for me, I just kind of felt like there was a bit of a split.”

Barty went back to Australia to spend time with her family and reset herself mentally and emotionally. While there, she didn’t lose her competitive spirit, and began an interest in playing cricket after she spent time with the Australian women’s national team in early 2015.

She instantly showed a promising talent for cricket, and began competing in the Brisbane Women’s Premier Cricket Twenty20 league, before also playing in the Women’s Big Bash League. Barty was a good cricket player, and played in the WBBL through the end of its 2015 season.

At that point, Barty was ready to return to tennis, and do so with a revamped mindset and fresh outlook.

“I love the sport of tennis, but I sort of got a little bit away from what I really wanted to do. It became robotic for me and that’s not what I wanted,” she said. “It’s such an amazing sport and I just really wanted to enjoy it and I lost that enjoyment and that passion. I think deep down, I knew if I kept trying to drive through it, it would drive me away completely. So it was the right time to step away and just refresh.”

Helping her come to the decision to return to her first love was her compatriot and friend Casey Dellaqua, who gave her the encouragement she needed, and the two shared a special moment after Barty’s Australian Open triumph.

“She brought me into the sport again. And allowed me to explore, to grow as a person, and I love her,” said Barty. “She is a bloody legend. And she is a great friend and I’m so grateful and lucky to have her. There would not be any other person that I want sitting directly across from me. When I was on the court, I was trying not to look at Casey. Looking around, trying to look everywhere but Casey, but knowing that if I needed anything, not even that there is anything to give other than the support and being there because Casey, she changed my life.”

That unrelenting smile and her humble approach is what makes Barty such a likeable player on tour, and you would be hard-pressed to find a colleague of hers that has a bad word to say. That was evident by the responses that came pouring in via social media during her victory, as Barty is one of the most likeable players on tour.

But beyond that, she is currently the best player on tour, and has been for quite some time now. Bolstering her already packed resume with an Australian Open title, Barty now has Slam victories on all three playing surfaces, and has shed the stigma that she was a clay-court or grass-court player with a tricky game. Her wicked backhand slice troubled opponents on grass and clay, but Barty now possess a dominant service game that has eliminated any weakness from her play.

Being successful on every surface was one of the main objectives that Barty and her early coaches emphasized, and it has come to fruition.

“It’s amazing to be able to have this experience and this opportunity on three different surfaces and be really consistent across the board,” said Barty. “Ultimately, that was one of the biggest challenges that [early mentor] Jim [Joyce] set out for me when I was young was to be a complete player and be really consistent across all surfaces and be able to play on all surfaces. So to have a Grand Slam title on each surface is pretty amazing. I never thought it would ever happen to me.”

Barty has ended the last three seasons in the top spot of the WTA Rankings, and has spent more than 100 consecutive weeks in that position. She is the owner of three major titles, and it’s hard to imagine that she will stop there. She is still only 25-years-old, which is remarkable for someone who has already played two sports professionally, and established herself as the dominant force in one of them.

But in typical Barty fashion, she downplayed her achievements thus far, and is focused on only the work in front of her.

“Yeah, there’s still work to be done, without a doubt,” said Barty. “To be honest, I don’t really feel like I belong with those champions of our sport. I’m still very much learning and trying to refine my craft and try and learn every single day and get better and better.”

The only accolade missing from Barty’s playing resume is a win at the U.S. Open here in New York, which she will have the opportunity to do later this year. If she does, she will become just the 11th woman all-time (Open Era and before) to win all four majors.

But perhaps no title in her career will ever mean more to her than the one she won in Melbourne, bringing glory not only to her home country, but doing so in front of her family, including parents Josie and Robert, and older sisters Sara and Ali, and friends who got to witness her triumph up close and personal.

“Being able to have that balance and understand that I’m very lucky and fortunate to be able to do what I do, I get to play a sport that I love for a living,” she said. “I get to compete, work hard, and I think I just see that as an opportunity. There are so many different things that I get to experience as a tennis player, and I’m very fortunate to do that.”


Photo Credit: Fiona Hamilton/Tennis Australia


This is the cover story for the March/April 2022 issue of Long Island Tennis Magazine. Click Here to see the full digital edition, or contact info@usptennis.com to sign-up for a home delivery subscription to Long Island Tennis Magazine.

 

 

Brian Coleman

Brian Coleman is the Senior Editor for Long Island Tennis Magazine. He may be reached at brianc@usptennis.com