Ashleigh Barty is the joint favourite with Serena Williams to win this year's Wimbledon title
For a world No 1, Ashleigh Barty is assiduously low-maintenance. Twice in her short career, she has been content simply to slip away from tennis altogether: once in 2015, when a sense of burnout persuaded her to rekindle her competitive fire through cricket, and again last year, as she sought sanctuary from the pandemic back home in zero-Covid Australia.
On the day when she was due to be defending her French Open crown last October, she was pictured at an Australian Rules match with a beer in hand. If there is a manual for maximising one’s time at the top in this sport, “our Ash”, as her countryfolk call her, is rewriting it.
“It was a really tough decision,” she reflects. “Throughout last year, there were a lot of tough conversations. I was good enough to defend my title in Paris, but I felt we had an opportunity this year instead. I’m very much a homebody. Any time that I get to be back in Australia with my family, that’s how I recharge.”
Her self-imposed exile has had mixed results so far, with a hip injury forcing her to retire from Roland Garros this month in the second round. “It didn’t go quite the way we planned. But that’s OK. The sun still came up. New day, new challenge.”
Barty is celebrated in her homeland for her no-nonsense disposition. She was named Young Australian of the Year in 2020, having fulfilled just about every quality the country seeks in its sporting ambassadors: humility, maturity, equanimity, and knowing how to hold a foaming pint of lager at a football game without spilling a drop.
It is little coincidence that her star has soared in a period when Nick Kyrgios’ antics have brought national embarrassment. At 25, she is the anti-Kyrgios in every sense, one whose on-court appearances are histrionic-free zones.
As the top seed for Wimbledon, she is a curiosity, a joint favourite with Serena Williams to win the title despite never having advanced beyond the fourth round. Her motivation to correct that record is intense, given that this year marks the 50th anniversary of Evonne Goolagong Cawley’s first Grand Slam triumph.
“She was such a graceful player,” Barty says of Goolagong, still the last ladies’ singles champion from Australia, in 1980. “She moved around the court like no one had ever seen at the time. I just have to make her proud. No matter what the result is, playing in the right spirit was a massive part of her game, and I’m trying to introduce that, too.”
Barty in action at Roland Garros – she had to withdraw in the second round due to a hip injury
Credit: GETTY IMAGES
Stylistically, Barty is not dissimilar to Goolagong, with her best play owing much to her glorious backhand slice. But their relationship goes much deeper than this: where Goolagong was a trailblazer for Aboriginal communities, the Wiradjuri girl who was only accepted into tennis after a local resident spotted her peering through the fence at her nearest court, Barty also has indigenous blood, as a descendant of New South Wales’ Ngarigo people on her father’s side.
“Evonne and I are family,” she says. “We share heritage, and that’s very special to me. It’s important for me to understand that being indigenous is part of who I am. I can’t change it, I’m very proud of it. Today, I’m the indigenous ambassador for Tennis Australia. I’m determined to bring change for the people, to guide their children into a healthier lifestyle, not just through education but sport. Evonne created the stepping stones, but I want to create my own path.”
Barty is quite the expert at finding her own direction in life. Almost seven years ago, she fell so out of love with tennis that she announced an indefinite hiatus, reinventing herself via a switch to T20 cricket with the Brisbane Heat.
Such is her immaculate hand-eye co-ordination, she has also become club champion in golf at her Queensland course. Evidently, these unusual departures are crucial in clearing her head. For within two-and-a-half years of returning to the tennis tour without a ranking to her name, she established herself as the world No 1.
“I just wanted to make myself a better person,” she explains. “The ranking is one small part of a much larger puzzle.” At several points, Barty has battled with psychological vulnerabilities. One key reason why she left tennis was that she had grown exhausted by the scrutiny and the itinerant existence. With that in mind, she is relieved that Naomi Osaka’s shock withdrawal from the tour has helped reframe the debate around players’ mental wellbeing.
“I’ve had my own battles, my own story around mental health,” Barty says. “There were times when I was happy to share parts of it, and others when I was working through it by myself. Now, it’s a topic that more people are comfortable talking about. It’s really important that we have a support network.”
Barty was named Young Australian of the Year in 2020
Credit: CALLUM SHEPPARD
She is reluctant to discuss the Osaka situation any further, the product of her natural wariness of controversy. For all that Barty is heralded as a figure of unimpeachable virtue by the Australian media, she has drawn criticism for some of her media performances, not least when she brought her baby niece to a press conference after defeat at the Australian Open last year.
Mark Woodforde, the former Wimbledon doubles champion, accused her of using the child as a deflection tactic from tough questions. There is likely to be a renewed inquisition if she falls short at Wimbledon this year. With closest rival Osaka still on a leave of absence, and world No 3 Simona Halep withdrawing hurt, Barty will never have a finer chance to emulate Goolagong than this.
“This year is extra-special,” she admits. “I want to play my part in celebrating Evonne’s career. Wimbledon is the ultimate. I’m fortunate to have won it as a junior, and every time I walk back through the gates there, I’m wowed. I think of all the Australians who have gone before me. It’s the most magical place on Earth.”
Ashleigh Barty is an ambassador for Jaguar, the Official Car of The Championships, Wimbledon