After a much-discussed sabbatical from tennis that featured a cameo with a cricket bat instead of a racquet, Ashleigh Barty is making an eye-catching impact in women’s tennis – a habitat where she was once a teenage prodigy.
Already 2017 has featured Barty’s best performance at a grand slam – a third round berth at January’s Australian Open, her first WTA title in Malaysia, her first victory over a world top 10 player – a gritty three-set triumph over Venus Williams in Cincinnati – and now her first foray into the world’s top 50.
A one-time junior Wimbledon champion who chose to have a spell after the US Open three years ago and opted for team sport, earning a contract with Brisbane Heat in the first season of cricket’s Women’s Big Bash League, Barty is now some chance to claim the mantle as Australia’s No.1 women’s player. There’s also the tantalising prospect of going deep into the women’s singles draw in New York this week.
Barty, 21, from Ipswich in Queensland, now has a career-high ranking of 42, narrowly ahead of countrywoman Sam Stosur (44) and with Daria Gavrilova (26) within her sights. Now that Gavrilova has taken Stosur’s long-held grip on the mantle, Barty could at some point also leap-frog Gavrilova.
“For me obviously it would be amazing. It really would,” Barty told Fairfax Media.
“In my eyes Sam (Stosur) has set the tone for so long and even though she hasn’t been able to play these last couple of months, she really did set the tone for women’s tennis in Australia and has been so consistent.
“I don’t think people quite realise how good she has been, how great she’s been, for a very long time.
“Dash (Gavrilova) has obviously had a great 18 months, two years, to take over that No.1 spot. But for me that would be a bonus. (We) go about our own business. We know that if we do the right things, things will take care of themselves.”
After her junior Wimbledon triumph at just 15 years of age in 2011, hopes were high for Barty and she made her Fed Cup debut two years later aged 16, the youngest to do so since Jelena Dokic in 1998.
Her 2013 season also featured second-round matches appearances as a wildcard at the French Open and US Open, seeing her ranking soar to as high as No.129 in the world. But the lure of team sport piqued her interest and she turned away from the sport that had been a big part of her life since four years of age – albeit momentarily – and became a dual-sport athlete.
But upon her return to the tennis circuit last year – which has also involved a successful pairing with Casey Dellacqua on the doubles court – Barty admits she has a slightly different mindset.
“I’m much more relaxed this time around than I was playing last time,” she says.
“And, yeah, I’m really happy off the court. And at home, which I think is a massive contributor to how I’m playing on the court.”
It’s been a landmark season for the Dellacqua-Barty combination. The duo reached the French Open doubles final, losing to Bethanie Mattek-Sands and Lucie Sararova, and the doubles quarter-finals at both the Australian Open and Wimbledon.
“I think we’ve had a really good season. We started the year great in the Aussie summer. It was always important for us to consolidate and try and work as hard as we could to set up our year,” Barty says.
“We’ve just had a really consistent year which has probably been one of the most pleasing things – to play well pretty much throughout the whole year and not have too many dips. So hopefully I can finish off strong now and have another crack next year.”
While the victory over world No.9 Venus Williams last week was a headline moment, it’s been a gradual but unmistakably one-way progression up the rankings for the young right-hander.
“I think for a couple of matches it’s really come together this year. The match against Venus is certainly one of those where … even though it was three sets and I went down a couple of breaks in that second set, I felt like I was still hitting the ball great and playing well.
“It’s just been nice to have a really consistent year, as I said. We (my team) haven’t really had a match where we’ve come off the court and (said) ‘what happened there?’ We’ve been clear every match and felt like we’ve been in every single match.”
Barty is not putting a ceiling on what she can achieve at Flushing Meadows, a major where Australia will be without Stosur for the first time since 2003 after the 33-year-old withdrew with an injured right hand. Stosur hasn’t competed since losing her fourth-round match at the French Open.
“A lot can depend on who you draw. And that’s a bit of a lucky dip, especially when you’re not seeded. You can sort of end up anywhere,” Barty says of her Big Apple prospects.
“I think it’s much the same as any other tournament. It doesn’t matter whether you’re playing on centre court in New York or … down in Bendigo.
“I’d prepare the same way and do the best I can, and just go out there and try and execute as best I can on the day.”