A whole year has passed since Ashleigh Barty returned to tennis.
Around this time last season, at the Aegon Open Nottingham, Barty – a former tennis prodigy who left the sport for 18 months – recorded the first WTA main draw win of her comeback. The then-20-year-old – winner of the 2011 Wimbledon girls’ singles title, and already a three-time major finalist in doubles – could not find pleasure in a sport that thrust her under pressure and sapped her of joy. Being incredibly talented did not come without its challenges.
But after a stint playing professional cricket and some time spent at home, the Aussie decided to give tennis another go. And the sport as a whole can be grateful. On Tuesday in Notts, in her first grass-court match of the 2017 season, the 21-year-old started slowly before blazing through a 4-6 6-3 6-0 win over Tatjana Maria. The nonseeder showcased some slick, smart and powerful tennis in the latter stages.
“Tatjana’s a quality player,” Barty reflected of her tricky opener. “We actually played here in the final many many years ago when it was a [50k ITF event.] In the first set there wasn’t much in there… Had a few break points early that I didn’t consolidate on, and eventually she got an edge and she grabbed it with both hands. But then I made a few changes which made a big difference. And just being on the court for a little bit longer, I got more comfortable as I was out there.”
It is perhaps beneficial that the rising star got an extra set of practice in round one. Her quick turnaround from reaching a fourth Grand Slam doubles final at the French Open had its consequences, as she made a number of uncharacteristic unforced errors early on.
“My preparation for the grass-court season was a 30 minute match warm-up this morning!” Barty laughed after the match. “We didn’t get a chance to hit yesterday, obviously. We travelled and just needed a day away from the courts. But for me it was no stress. Win or lose, it was about getting a match on the grass. I’ve always played well here, I’ve always loved coming to Nottingham and love the city itself, and the courts are always in great condition.”
She added: “The body’s going to be a bit sore and sorry tomorrow, after making such a quick transition, but that’s a part of it!”
It is good for the crafty-yet-powerful star to immediately throw herself into a new competition. If the quick transition between surfaces and timezones was not enough, her Parisian loss alongside compatriot Casey Dellacqua – against top seeds Lucie Safarova and Bethanie Mattek-Sands – was tough to take.
“I think disappointment plays a big part in it, as well,” Barty admits. “Case and I had a phenomenal three weeks. We had an emotional sort of afternoon after our match. Not negative in any way, it’s just disappointment. Grand Slams absolutely suck it out of you, so it was a big, big two weeks. It was actually nice yesterday to just travel and try not to think too much. We were both pretty tired.”
The duo are both present this week, although not pairing up on the Nottingham lawns. Nevertheless, they will join forces at Wimbledon, and Barty clearly loves having her ‘best mate’ around. The 32-year-old greatly helped the younger Aussie in readjusting to the toughness of life on the road.
“I’m very much a home buddy, and I love to be home,” Barty confessed. “But it’s been really nice and refreshing having Case on the road for me, because she’s like family and she’s like my sister. And with technology it’s fantastic and easy now to contact home and FaceTime and things like that. Being away is difficult, but it’s part and parcel with playing tennis, I suppose.”
Her support system in Australia will undoubtedly be thrilled at how their girl is progressing. This time last season, the skilful right-hander did not know where she was headed after Nottingham, with her ranking dwindling at world no. 623. Now – despite battles with injury during not-so-recent months – the exciting talent is ranked world no. 88, and has a maiden WTA singles title under her belt. The crowning moment so far came in Kuala Lumpur in February, where Barty – ranked outside the top 200 in singles – stormed to dual-title glory.
“Obviously KL was a massive week with singles and doubles,” Barty acknowledged. “And then at the Australian Open – having my first deeper run at a Slam, and making a quarter with Case – that was a big step for us. And last week was pretty exciting, as well.”
She continued: “The past year has truly been phenomenal. I know as a tennis player you can go through some rollercoasters with the good and the bad, and I don’t think I’ve really had a bad trot yet – which is credit to my team, as well. We spent the time earlier last year setting the foundation with training.
“And yes, last year was a frustrating year with some injuries, but that was always gonna happen coming back into a sport that I hadn’t played for so long. This year’s been amazing, and it’s been really nice to have Case back out here as well playing doubles. She just makes it all the more fun for me.”
While most players enter this sport with intentions of being the only player on their side of the net, Barty has no doubt that success in doubles means just as much to her as singles triumph.
“For me, doubles has always been just as important,” the 21-year-old confirmed. “Especially when I get to play with my best mate week in, week out. It’s always nicer to be playing a match than practicing, so if you’re out of singles and you’re still in doubles you’re getting quality court time.
“And I know that the doubles certainly helps my singles. It’s such a different game, and you have to use so many different parts of the court that you’re exposed to so often. Obviously being at the net and understanding where you need to be, it’s gonna help in singles. You just have another option.”
A match these skills did not quite get her through was a third round contest in Rome last month. Little did she know it at the time, but as Barty bowed out in a close 5-7 6-4 6-4 defeat, it was to the eventual Roland Garros singles champion: Jelena Ostapenko.
“We had a great match,” the Aussie acknowledged of her duel with the 20-year-old. “She had an absolutely fantastic run at the French, and when I played her it was very similar. She played that fearless, free game. And absolutely, credit goes to her, she played an unbelievable tournament – and an unbelievable final, especially, when she was almost down and out. It was amazing, and I think it’s a credit to her and her team as well for just going out there and having a red hot crack.”
The unseeded Latvian’s shock run hints at an opening for talented young players like Barty. Nevertheless, the down-to-earth talent is keeping it real as she looks to the near future.
“I think this year’s still about consolidating, really,” she assessed. “We’d love to finish the year still inside the top 100, looking to edge closer to the top 50. If we can crack it, great, and if not, we’d like to consolidate a little bit. It’s been a big year so far, and this is a really exciting season for me now on grass. I’m comfortable on it, and it sort of felt like home out there again today. And then I’m looking forward to playing my first real US Summer!”
Before then, the Aussie will play a full Wimbledon tournament – featuring mixed doubles with John Peers. Even before that, days and weeks of competition on the lawns stretch ahead, with potential for good runs in multiple disciplines.
And the way she finished her clash on Monday – with hardly any pre-match practice on the surface – Ashleigh Barty is definitely one to keep an eye on.