World number one Ash Barty is winning fans on and off the court with her exciting game and big-hearted generosity.
Well how’s that for a happy old year? Win the French Open. Win the end-of-season players’ championship to pocket the biggest-ever prize in tennis history (men or women) – $6.4 million. Win the world number-one ranking. Finish up with a swag of awards, including women’s player of the year and a third Newcombe Medal, for most outstanding Australian player.
Now, coming into a new year, Ash Barty faces fresh challenges. She’ll go into the Australian Open as the top seed and favourite. Last January, she made it as far as the quarter-finals (losing to Petra Kvitová). This time around, after all she achieved in 2019, a similar result could be regarded as a failure. Probably not in her eyes – she says her goal always is to get onto a court, give her all and then shake hands with her opponent – but certainly so far as the Australian media are concerned.
Australia has a long and proud history in tennis. But since an unseeded Chris O’Neil won in 1978, no Australian player has lifted an Australian Open singles trophy. A couple came close – Wendy Turnbull was runner-up in 1980, Pat Cash in 87 and 88, Lleyton Hewitt in 2005. It was different once: Australian women won their Open 17 times in the 1960s and 70s; 15 for men. But since 1978, nothing. It is a sporting quirk. And every year the pressure of expectations on leading contenders is inexorably ratcheted up.
Then again, Billie Jean King (Australian Open champion in 1968) once said, “Pressure is a privilege”. Asked about this, and the extra pressure on her now, Barty tells The Big Issue: “The only pressure I feel is the pressure I put on myself. Other than that, there’s only pressure if I’m focusing on external noise or things I can’t control. I just focus on what I can control and then whatever happens, happens.”
Everyone with even a passing interest in tennis will be keeping an eye on what’s happening at the Australian Open, a tournament Barty first contested in 2012 when only 15. She lost in the first round. But that mattered less than meeting one of her idols, Evonne Goolagong Cawley, who was impressed by the way the young Ipswich girl played, using serve-and-volley tactics as well as a sliced backhand – just as she had herself. The winner of four Opens (1974-77) has since become a mentor and friend to Barty, a proud Ngaragu woman, who has described Goolagong Cawley as a trailblazer for all Indigenous players.
Like Barty, Goolagong Cawley reached the world number-one ranking (in 1971). Back then, Australian success was taken for granted. Tournaments were smaller; there was less pressure. But Barty is well equipped to handle favouritism. She has several things going for her: a tight family and supportive team, led by coach Craig Tyzzer (WTA coach of the year in 2019). Also, and most importantly, her maturity, especially impressive for someone who will turn 24 in April.
Barty started very young – not quite five years old when her father, Rob, first took her to the Ipswich tennis court where Jim Joyce was coach. At first, he wanted to turn her away, saying kids didn’t start with him until they were seven. “I was shattered,” Barty has recalled. “All I wanted to do was play tennis.” Joyce held firm, until he saw the girl hit some balls. Then he said: “Darling, you can come back next week.” Later, he said he was struck by two things: the youngster’s hand-eye coordination, the best he’d ever seen, and her enthusiasm for tennis.
Within a decade, that talent was being showcased on the world stage. In 2011, when only 15, Barty won the Junior Wimbledon title. Before long she was playing in professional tournaments. She had success, especially in doubles. Playing with fellow Australian Casey Dellacqua, she was runner-up in three Grand Slam doubles tournaments while still a teenager. And then, aged 18 in 2014, she just walked away. Later she would say: “If I’m being 100 per cent honest, it happened way too soon. I wasn’t ready. I just wanted to go back to Queensland, refresh, be a normal chick.” Early success was both the best and worst thing to happen to her.
Last year, Dellacqua put it this way: “She wasn’t enjoying being on the practice courts. She wasn’t enjoying being on the road – and in professional tennis, you’re nine months away from home. She was just too young. Playing at the top is hard, and it’s high pressure. Everyone expected big things from her. Most players don’t reach that point until they are in their early to mid twenties – where she is now… In a way, she was too good too young. Now the time is right.”
It took courage and an impressive degree of self-awareness for Barty to walk away from top-level tennis. She played cricket (including for the Brisbane Heat in the Women’s Big Bash League); she went fishing; she chilled. It might well have saved her from the emotional and physical burnout that has blighted the careers of so many talented young players – including Martina Hingis, Jennifer Capriati and Jelena Dokic, who, like Barty, played in the Australian Open as a teenager. Barty’s much-hyped compatriots Nick Kyrgios and Bernard Tomic can also be seen as victims of early success.
Barty has always had a close family. This support, and her own maturity and level-headedness, will help her now. After Barty’s French Open triumph last year, Dellacqua wrote: “She has a strong and loving family; mum, dad, two sisters and a niece and nephew. They’ve always been there for her and supported all her decisions about her career – even when she decided to quit.” She might also be aware that she has many other options, especially in sport.
Her father recalls Ash coming home in the early days of her cricket career and saying “Hey Dad, I just scored my first century.” And I just thought, “Oh my God!” In the lead-up to the Presidents Cup golf event in Melbourne last month, Barty took part in a promotional event, hitting balls with golfing greats Tiger Woods and Ernie Els. Woods took one look at her style and said: “She’s got a great swing. Are you kidding me?” Her early mentor wouldn’t have been surprised about that: it all gets back to that coordination he first noticed in the little girl in Ipswich.
During her break from tennis, which ended in early 2016, Barty tells The Big Issue, “I also tried my hand at tennis coaching with my old coach Jim Joyce at the West Brisbane Tennis Centre. I think Jim’s strategy was to get me coaching older ladies so I would go back to playing earlier, but I actually really enjoyed it! Mainly I just did normal things with my family that I hadn’t been able to do for a while with the tennis travel and I was lucky enough to make some lifelong friends during that time at home, largely through cricket. I’m grateful for that time and believe I wouldn’t be where I am today without that break.”
One irony about her recent success in singles is that it has put the squeeze on her former love, playing doubles. Barty says: “I have always enjoyed doubles and singles and believe that doubles helps my singles game. Sometimes it is difficult to play both when I go deeper in singles in the major tournaments. But I still enjoy the challenge of trying to play both and spending time with some of the other great girls on the WTA Tour who I partner with. Doubles will definitely be part of my schedule in 2020.”
The world woke up to Barty last year. In June, the headline on a New Yorker magazine story was ‘More People Should Know the Name of Ashleigh Barty…’ Louisa Thomas wrote: “Barty has an unusual game. Many players, even great ones, play shots. She plays points. Many players move from side to side. She moves up and back, high and low, and plays with pace and spin…”
Serena Williams certainly knew her name before then but not, apparently, how far she’d come. On the eve of last year’s Wimbledon, she seemed unaware that Barty had hit number one. Some interpreted this as a snub. Like many others, Williams probably just finds it hard to keep up with revolving door at the top. Over the past three years, eight women – including Williams and Barty – have been number one. And Williams was quick to add: “I don’t know anyone that has anything negative to say about her. She’s like the sweetest, cutest girl on tour. She’s so nice. She has a great game. I think she’s really even-tempered. She’s just really chill.”
Hingis, another former number one, is also a fan. “She doesn’t have to prove anything to anybody,” she said recently. “She’s out there because she loves it and loves what she’s doing and that’s why she’s had success… I just love the variety about her game… It’s not just boom boom and full power.” In 1997, Hingis became the youngest-ever Grand Slam singles champion when she won the Australian Open at 16: two months later, she was the youngest-ever world number one. But she retired at 22, a victim of injuries and burnout.
Women’s tennis now has a new teen sensation, American “Coco” Gauff, who reached the fourth round at Wimbledon last year at 15 – the age Barty was in 2011 when she won the junior title. Given her own experience, what advice would she give Gauff? Barty says: “I have spoken to Coco and was lucky enough to play an exhibition match against her in North Carolina in August. What she has been able to achieve is incredible; she is a very talented player. Coco is on her own path and she is doing an amazing job so far. I hope she enjoys the journey – the good moments, the challenging times and the in-between!”
Gauff already has at least a wise head in her corner: Roger Federer. They share the same management. For Barty, Federer is also an example of a successful player contributing something to the world outside tennis.
“Roger has done an incredible amount in the charitable space and sets an example for us all,” she says. “Giving back is very important to me, whether that be through a foundation or through individual charity partnerships. At the moment my focus is on supporting my long-time partner the RSPCA. I am so passionate about animals and their welfare, so this is close to my heart.”
After donating more than $30,000 to help wildlife affected by the national bushfire crisis in November, Barty is now supporting families left devastated by the disaster. The number-one seed has pledged to donate all of her prize money from the Brisbane International to the Red Cross Fire Appeal.
“With my Indigenous background, helping Indigenous communities is my other focus,” she says. “In addition to my role as Tennis Australia’s National Indigenous Ambassador, which aims to get more Indigenous kids active and playing tennis, I have recently started working with the Queensland Government on its education program for Indigenous kids in regional areas. I find this so rewarding and hope to do more in this space in the years to come.”
This is perhaps more remarkable than what she has achieved in tennis. Barty, a proud young Australian woman, can already see far beyond the lines of a court.
By Alan Attwood.
Alan Attwood is a former Editor of The Big Issue.
First published in The Big Issue Australia #602.
Photo: Getty Images.