Ash Barty’s rise to world tennis’s top 10
Ash Barty is a muscular, sun-burnished vision of humility. When she wins, there’s no falling to the ground and no tears, just the feeling that she might be a bit embarrassed. She claps the crowd, not herself. She gives a laconic thumbs-up to the camera. When interviewed, she says she’s a “lucky girl” and that her win really belongs to her team. When told last week she’s now ranked No. 9 in the world for both singles and doubles the 22-year-old responded like a poet of the Australian collective imagination: “There you go. How bloody good.” If Australia has spent the past decade looking for a tennis hero who embodies all the myths and values we like to apply to ourselves – stoic but warm, a great improviser who’s also committed to hard yakka, unpretentious, suspicious of officialdom and mildly uncomfortable with success – she’s finally arrived. We would have seen her earlier if we weren’t so fixated on the men.
The entire time we’ve been muttering darkly about Nick Kyrgios or Bernard Tomic – their wasted potential and our blasted dreams of another world No. 1 – Barty has been quietly and good-naturedly rising through the ranks. She began 2017 outside the top 250 ranked players in the world in both singles and doubles, and ended the year inside the top 20. After her Miami Open singles title on March 31, Barty is now the only player in the world, male or female, to hold a top 10 position in both singles and doubles.
If tennis is a game of character where a player’s background is revealed in every scuttle and leap, where memory choreographs movement, then Barty’s origins are significant. Barty is an Indigenous woman, born in Ipswich in 1996 to Robert Barty, a Ngarigo man who works in the government, and Josie Barty, the radiographer daughter of English immigrants. She began playing tennis at age four and, unusually for tennis, her parents remain refreshingly nonplussed by her success. “We don’t get nervous to be honest, because we’re not heavily involved with her tennis at all,” explained her father in 2013. “We are Mum and Dad and we just love the opportunity to watch her play.” It was coach Jim Joyce who cultivated her talent and ambition: “The first ball I threw to her, bang! She hit it right back,” he remembers, commenting on her whip-fast reflexes and exceptional focus. Together they developed a strategy that compensated for her small stature (166 centimetres) with an all-court game.
If you watch Barty play you can see how airily she springs from the balls of her feet to cover the court, how effortlessly she slips from voluptuous looping forehands to chip-slice backhands to careful, precise volleys. At 12 she was playing against male adults and at 15 she had taken out the junior girls’ singles at Wimbledon, reaching a world junior ranking of No. 2 in 2011. But the success took a toll. “I wanted to experience life as a normal teenage girl,” she has said of this time, with its endless flights, hotels and tournaments. So in 2014 she took a break from tennis and turned to professional cricket, playing for Brisbane Heat in the women’s Big Bash League.
Pundits have pointed to Barty’s 18 months away from tennis as one of the reasons for her recent success – a self-imposed furlough during which she collected her mental and physical strength. But this flirtation with another sport points to an unlikely affinity with Kyrgios, the tennis star at the antipodes of Australian public opinion who has been anything but reticent about his real passion: basketball. Balance, foot speed, hand-eye co-ordination – these skills are of course transferrable, but outside the Australian pair, few players at the top flight give as much of a sense of the arbitrariness of their achievements in their elected sport, as if tennis were neither a necessary nor a sufficient expression of their athletic prowess. But the differences between the two remain instructive.
With Kyrgios, there’s an indifference bordering on contempt for the sovereign graces of tennis (economy and elegance as personified by St Roger), graces that can only curtail opportunities for extravagant showmanship or spectacle. Hence, the lackadaisical tweeners, the no-look volleys, the outlandish displays of fair-mindedness (giving points away, encouraging opponents to challenge line calls et cetera). The size of the ball ceases to matter so long as the shot makes the highlight reel. What Kyrgios personifies is a vision of sport not as an arduous discipline of physical and psychic perfectionism, but as gratuitous entertainment.
With Barty, the opposite is true. She is a kind of Renaissance woman, the embodiment of a many-sided athletic ideal that transcends the merely parochial virtues of any individual sport. Even within those she has played, she is that most anomalous of professional athletes: the genuine all-rounder. As a cricketer, she was handy with both bat and ball; as a tennis player, she is equally adept at net and baseline, the slice and topspin, defence and offence. Remarkably, she doesn’t have a trademark in the way that the most recognisable players on the WTA tour do: Naomi Osaka’s down-the-line backhand, Petra Kvitová’s crosscourt forehand, Simona Halep and Angelique Kerber’s muscular counterpunching, Maria Sharapova’s almost psychotic aggression. There’s no WMD in her arsenal, no single shot or mindset that seems some divine gift. Her game, for want of a better word, is immensely “relatable”. It’s a way of playing that calls for participation and emulation, not just admiration and awe. You want to step out on the court after seeing a Barty match; you want to play those volleys, those drop shots, those lobs. With the pressures of professionalisation, fewer and fewer athletes at the highest level seem to be able to channel the pure appetite for a sport at its grassroots. Barty is one of them.
No match-up demonstrates this quite so starkly as Barty versus Sharapova. They are one apiece (not including a walkover in 2014), Barty squaring the ledger by winning 4-6, 6-1, 6-4 in the round of 16 at the Australian Open this year. That game is a study in contrasts: on one side of the net, Barty is all sweetness of touch and lightness of foot, a flurry of deft movements; on the other, Sharapova is all sturm und drang, clubbing each ball as if she never wants to see another one in her life, punctuating each stroke with a grunt exorcising a lifetime of misery and toil. The joyless efficiency of Sharapova’s shot-making is almost precisely counterpointed by Barty’s patience, her enthusiasm for working the angles, tweaking the rhythms of play, and using up every inch of the court. It’s the formula that eventually saw her beat Karolína Plíšková to claim the Miami title.
Barty’s rise marks an exhilarating moment in women’s tennis. While the men’s game has made much of its next generation and (perennially postponed) “changing of the guard”, it is the women’s game that has suddenly opened up: witness the ascent of the 21-year-old Haitian–Japanese Osaka to the No. 1 ranking, beating Serena Williams on the way. It’s exciting watching Barty jostle among these new players, representing Australia not just as we wish we were – tight-lipped, level-headed and sturdy – but illuminating the identities we have too often erased: Indigenous, female and proud.
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Apr 13, 2019 as "Serving us well". Subscribe here.