Over the last week, Ashleigh Barty swung her racquet at tennis balls, skidded in her trainers on Melbourne Park’s hardcourts, and wore lavender for her matches in the Australian Open. This time last year though, she was swinging a bat at a cricket ball, sprinting 22 yards and back in spikes, and wearing the teal of the Brisbane Heat in the Women’s Big Bash League.
Like so many tennis players, Ash Barty started young, at five years old. She made her first ripples on the junior circuit in 2009, aged just 13. The ripples grew in size and frequency; at one point in 2010, she had a win loss record of 30-2. She made a small splash when she got to number two in the world on the junior circuit, and won the junior Wimbledon title. And just after she turned 15, the girl from Ipswich in Brisbane decided to dive in and turned pro.
Ask any journeyman tennis player what turning pro means. In this 2013 Forbes article , Michael Russell described it as being, “self-employed, travelling a ton, paying taxes everywhere you play.” Other fifteen year olds were thinking about their grades, which movie was releasing that weekend, and the upcoming challenges of high school. Barty was planning and beating the likes of Casey Dellacqua and Olivia Rogowska, her fellow Australians, senior in both age and ranking.
By 2012, she had broken into the top 200, aged just 16. By 17, she had notched up her first singles win in a Grand slam. That year she also won her first Grand Slam doubles match, partnering Dellacqua; they made it all the way to the final of the Australian Open. And she was one of the youngest members of the Australian Fed Cup team, with over nine hundred thousand dollars in prize money to her name.
Her next year should have been stepping stone into the top 100. Instead, she took an indefinite break from the game.
We tend to put playing sports on a pedestal: a noble pursuit, a fortunate profession. Playing for the country; that is the highest honour. What no coach ever tells kids when they turn up for the first time, is that sport can also be difficult physically and emotionally, and also lonely. Yes, even team sports, take it from me. But individual sports -particularly those which keep you on the road for three months at a time like professional tennis- can seem even more so.
“I just wanted to come home and spend time with my family”, Barty told the Dead Set Legends podcast. “I started playing when I was five years old. I didn’t want to be driven away from the sport, so I needed to step back. I needed to enjoy just being a kid again”
Barty met the Australian women’s cricket team at a function just before they were due to tour England for a long Ashes tour in 2014. It was there that the idea of her playing a team sport materialized in her mind. “"It is tough when you're by yourself and I think that's why team sport is so appealing. I had never really played team sports as a junior.”
The timing of her move could not have been better. 2015 was annus mirabilis for women’s cricket in Australia, the pinnacle of which was the launch of the WBBL . When Barty approached Queensland Cricket to ask if she could try her hand at the game, they must have seen the marketing potential (among other things) of the headlines “Tennis star plays for Brisbane Heat.”But Barty was more than just a gimmick.
She has described herself as an all or nothing kind of person, and she put her everything into learning her new sport. According to the trainers at the Brisbane Heat, Barty had one of the strongest throwing arms in the team, with the muscle movements required mimicking her forehand. And at training, she hit more balls than anyone else, a habit that carried over from hours of individual tennis coaching. She already had ball sense, that mix of hand eye coordination and spatial awareness that translates into a batter’s biggest asset: timing. And considering tennis players could run between three to 10 kilometers in a three set match, she always had the legs for T20 cricket.
“She rarely missed a ball in training”, said Andy Richards, coach of the Heat WBBL team. It was not surprising considering the transferable skills between cricket and tennis. Both have similar fitness demands, with a start-stop nature. Both involve watching the ball to the very last moment, whether while batting, fielding, or hitting a backhand. And both demand a combination of upper and lower body strength.
So it should not have surprised many when Barty hit 39 off 27 balls, with one six, in her first ever WBBL match, just over three months after she had first picked up a bat. Although she did not make as much of an impact thereafter, it was the feel of playing in a team environment that Barty was relishing. "There's never a lonesome moment on the field if you're struggling. There's 10 other girls that can help you out and get you through the tough times," Barty said.
It seems fitting that the closest thing tennis has to a team structure was what helped Barty make up her mind about getting back to tennis. While in Sydney last year, she spoke to her doubles partner Casey Dellacqua. “We had a hit, and that’s when I realized that I miss this, especially hitting with this girl. It was nice to have chat with her about things and put things into perspective again”
Her return to tennis though, was not straightforward. An injury to her right arm delayed it, but when it did happen it came at her home event, the Brisbane international. With her friends and family watching, she “blew out a few cobwebs”, and returned to competitive tennis. And she stretched the world number one, Angelique Kerber, to three sets.
Then came the wild card entry into the Australian open. In the singles, she got to the third round, her best ever result in a Grand Slam. She also played in the doubles, with Dellacqua, and ousted the fifth seeds, Martina Hingis and Coco Vanderweghe, before losing to the top seeds in the quarterfinals.
“This time I view tennis very differently, I’m much more mature. Instead of a fifteen year old girl aught in the headlights, I feel like I belong now.”
She has also been a crowd favourite as well, with the Australian public backing her vociferously. And her Brisbane Heat team mates were right behind her, expressing their support on Twitter with the hashtag #BartyParty. Her doubles quarter final with Dellacqua was slotted on the prestigious Rod Laver Arena on the late night slot, and the story of her comeback after a stint with cricket has helped add to her appeal. Also, her performance has given the public reason to expect more growth from the refreshed Barty. Despite having missed a couple of years in her tennis career, she is only twenty years old.
“I just can’t wait to get started.”
While she may not find herself singing team songs after wins anymore, she is not enjoying her comeback any less.
Updated Date: Jan 26, 2017 15:39:26 IST