Consistent and meticulous Ash Barty is rewriting tennis history.
The Australian's astute outlook has positioned her on the verge of emulating Evonne Goolagong Cawley in her Wimbledon debut final.
Ash Barty stepped onto a makeshift stage on the MCG turf in October last year and presented the AFL premiership cup to the captain and coach of Richmond Football Club, the team she has supported her entire life. Tennis appeared to be a world away.
Nine months later, having successfully returned to the Tour after Covid-19 severely disrupted the 2020 season and forced her to withdraw from several tournaments – including the rematch of her French Open title – the world No. 1 is on the verge of claiming her second grand slam title.
Only Karolina Pliskova of the Czech Republic stands in her way of a piece of Australian tennis history – only Margaret Court and Evonne Goolagong Cawley have won the women's singles title at Wimbledon twice during the Open era.
Yet, despite being crowned the world's best women's tennis player in June 2019, Barty continues to fly, oddly, under the radar. For a woman who is a down-to-earth achiever who eschews sporting stereotypes of tattoos, tantrums, and navel gazing, this is precisely where she is content to be.
Barty, a Ngarigo woman who is fiercely proud of her Indigenous ancestry, is the first Australian woman to reach the Wimbledon final since 1980, when her idol, the outrageously talented Goolagong Cawley, defeated Chris Evert. She has worked diligently to improve her game and her profile. Nobody has anything bad to say about the 5ft 5in scrapper, a player who moves her opponents around the court much like Martina Hingis did in the late 1990s when she swept the tennis board.
Barty's origins are as routine as they come. She comes from a loving family near Brisbane and has been coached by the same coach, Craig Tyzzer, for years. She also has a long-term boyfriend, golfer Garry Kissick. Loyalty is critical.
She reached her first Wimbledon final eight years ago, when she was just 17 years old, losing the women's doubles with Casey Dellacqua. Unsurprisingly, they remain the best of friends.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, such an early push took its toll, and following the 2014 US Open doubles final (again with Dellacqua), she packed her tennis bag and headed to Australia to play cricket for the Brisbane Heat in the Women's Big Bash League. She is also an accomplished golfer.
After a two-year hiatus, Barty returned to steadily climb the tennis rankings. She is a practical person who is meticulous in everything she does. “Ash understands tennis is what she does, not who she is,” Ben Crowe, her mindset coach who assisted in reviving the Australian cricket team's fortunes, has stated.
However, it is the humility that stands out. Barty called this journalist in China in November 2019 for a pre-Australian summer chat. “Hello, my name is Ash Barty,” she began as if we spoke on a regular basis, without airs and graces, her economy of play reflected in her economy of speech. The line dropped out a couple of times while she was calling from China, but she rang back. “I'll call you back if it happens again,” she assured him, eager to continue giving.
It is only a snapshot, but sufficient. To be expected, the accolades have been pouring in for some time. “You don't want to put her under too much pressure because she's a tennis player, but I believe she has the potential to transcend our sport,” former Australian Davis Cup captain John Fitzgerald said.
John Newcombe, the great tennis player, is another admirer. Is Barty Australia's favorite athlete, as he was asked during the 2019 Newcombe medal presentations? “She would be close,” he added presciently in reference to Barty's agenda. “One of her objectives should not be to become world number one. Ash's team should aim for a tournament similar to Wimbledon.”
However, she is the future of Australian tennis at the moment. While compatriot Nick Kyrgios – another fan – will garner headlines during the first week of a major, Barty has increasingly cornered the business end. Her public persona is diametrically opposed to that of the intense and voluble Kyrgios, who is also a thoroughly decent person.
Consider her post-match media conferences, in which Barty's thoughts immediately following a win or loss – the outcome appears to be irrelevant – are sculpted and precise. She is impeccably delivered, with direct and unwavering eye contact. When asked about the magnanimity of her most recent eight-set loss as tournament favorite to Karolna Muchová at this year's Australian Open, she was unfazed. “The sun will rise again tomorrow” and “every match is equally important” are two of her daily aphorisms.
This is an astute perspective. This is an athlete who is self-assured enough to remain stationary. By frequently referring to herself in the plural, she has elevated inclusivity to a new level. “We sit down, as we always do at the conclusion of a match or a tournament, and discuss what comes next,” she said following her February loss to Danielle Collins in Adelaide. This is a standard method of delivery.
She is already obscenely wealthy for having won only one major title to date, the 2019 French Open, with approximately US$18 million in prize money already banked.
The decision to avoid the worst of Covid by remaining in Australia in 2020 precluded her from adding additional major titles, but a winning streak this year, highlighted by a snatching of the Miami Open, has gotten her back on track. The bandage wrapped around her left thigh that prevented her from competing in the 2021 Australian Open has been removed, and the recurring hip injury that forced her to withdraw from last month's French Open appears to have healed.
If she appears confident physically, the 2020 Young Australian of the Year's mental strength is a foregone conclusion. On Saturday, she will not wilt. Even her adversaries are fans. “I like Ash; it's not about how she plays,” Petra Kvitová, a two-time Wimbledon champion, says. “She is always present; she is a wonderful person.”
Alicia Molik, Australia's Federation Cup captain, provides context. “When Ash returns to Brisbane, she is delighted to practice with [lower-ranked] female athletes. That quickly rubs off; you gain confidence and a sense of belonging when you play people at a higher level.”
There is another component that will attract a broader audience, according to Molik. “Australians have an affinity for fighters. Australians desire a sense of familiarity with others. Ash is your next-door neighbor; she is approachable.”
Almost everything will change if Barty wins on Saturday; Wimbledon remains, as it always has been, the pinnacle of tennis. However, what happens when she returns to her home training court and behind closed doors? No, you suspect, not even a smidgeon.