Two years can make the world of difference.
In Nottingham two years ago, former prodigy Ashleigh Barty was returning to professional tennis after a stint playing cricket. The weight of pressure and expectation had driven the 2015 junior Wimbledon champion into an indefinite break from a sport in which she had already reached multiple Grand Slam finals in doubles. Nottingham was her first official WTA event back in action, and the Aussie was required to come through qualifying.
Skip ahead 24 months, and Barty – a quarterfinalist here in 2016, and a semifinalist last season – is the top seed at the Nature Valley Open. This follows a pleasing first full season back on the circuit, which saw the current world no. 17 win a maiden WTA title in Malaysia, and knock on the door of the world’s top ten in doubles. Barty has since entered the top five in that discipline, and was awarded the Newcombe Medal – Australia’s most prestigious tennis award – at the end of 2016.
Given her seamless re-entry into tennis, and the swift pace of her success, it is easy to forget that the talented 22-year-old once stepped away from the game.
Barty’s start to this season’s event was more clinical than that of her 2017 campaign, where she needed three sets to get past Tatjana Maria after just 30 minutes of grass-court preparation beforehand. She broke serve straight off the mark against world no. 93 Stefanie Voegele on Tuesday, unleashing her full repertoire throughout the match to seal a 6-3 6-3 victory.
“It was pretty clean for a first match on grass,” Barty assessed of her triumph. “In particular I served well, especially when I needed to. And I think early in the match, the first couple of returning games kind of set the tone and built pressure right from the get go. So obviously I’m very pleased with that.”
She added: “We had a good week last week in London to prepare as best we could, and were lucky enough to hit with Jo[hanna Konta] at Wimbledon a couple of times, which was great.”
Little more than a couple of weeks remain until competition begins on the hallowed lawns of SW19, and Barty has never been in a better position approaching the fortnight. While she is yet to make a big splash on a Grand Slam stage, grass is her best surface, and only Serena Williams halted her progress at the recent French Open.
That had been her most recent match prior to Tuesday, and it highlighted the variety of challenges that rising stars face: squaring off on major stages against all-time legends in one clash, before entering their next as the clear favourite for victory. Each situation carries its own unique sense of pressure, but Barty’s upbeat attitude and relaxed approach are doing her favours in this regard.
“Yes and no,” was Barty’s response when asked whether she found this particularly difficult. “These particular matches were a couple of weeks apart – and that helps, I suppose, when it’s not the next day. And I’m more confident on a grass court than I am on clay.”
The Aussie was upbeat once again when quizzed about both her top seeding, and her run to the Birmingham Classic final almost a year ago – her first WTA Premier final.
“I take it in my stride,” she said. “I had my first experience of [being top seed] just a few weeks ago in Strasbourg, and I felt like I played well there. It was a bit of a different feeling seeing my name at the top of the draw, but at the end of the day I’m in the draw [the same] as everyone else is, and that’s all that matters.
“And having reached the Birmingham final just brings out a little bit of extra confidence, knowing that I did play well last year during this season. We’re off to a good start so far this year, but I think the beauty of grass court tennis is that you get better with matches. There’s no better way to try and fix up your game than during matches.”
This is not to say that the skilled Australian is immune to the difficulties and lows that come with a sport as harsh as this one – where draws between opponents are non-existent, and one person must leave the court on the wrong side of the scoreline.
“I’ve cried a lot after matches,” the 22-year-old, who had her chances during her three set loss to Williams in Paris, confessed. “A lot of tears. I think some matches hurt more than others, but I think if you’re not really disappointed – in yourself and the result – there’s something wrong.
“It’s a part of sport. We’re all competitors out here, trying to win every match we play, but I think you have to learn how to lose. It’s bound to happen. No one goes through their whole life winning every single tennis match or every single game.”
She added: “So you can be disappointed, but at the end of the day it’s a tennis match. There are a lot of bigger things in the world that matter a lot more than winning.”
Barty is very much still on the rise. For all her skill at the net and the fluidity of her game, the right-hander is yet to bag a top 20 win this season. But as she occasionally struggles for consistency during baseline rallies, the lawns provide the opportunity to end those points earlier and utilise the faster pace of competition. And Barty loves this surface.
“In tennis, to have fun is the most important thing,” were the words the top ranked Aussie closed her press conference with on Tuesday.
When those words are coming from this particular player, there can be no doubt that she means them.