Ashleigh Barty world #1, humble, impressive and widely admired.
I’ve long thought that there’s no sporting theatre as compelling as a great singles tennis match. The protagonists need to think ahead like chess players, require the mental strength of martial artists and the balance, reflexes and bravery of middleweight boxes.
To win enough singles tennis matches to reach the position of number one in the world or, in other words, be its best player, is therefore a sporting achievement of the highest magnitude.
That’s what Ashleigh Barty is right now, as humble, impressive and widely liked a tennis player as you could wish to see. It’s been interesting to be reminded that the last Australian women’s tennis player to reach number one in the world was Evonne Goolagong Cawley in 1976. That was a time so far back that cigarette advertising was displayed all over major sports grounds. It was also a time when tennis was one of the few sports that received anything close to equal coverage for men and women.
Hobart women’s international tennis tournament
In my working life as a sports commentator for ABC Grandstand, my favourite week of the year was the Hobart women’s international tennis tournament each January. Having played and followed tennis avidly as a youngster and indeed having fantasised (emphasis on fantasy) of being a professional player myself, there was nothing more intriguing and enjoyable than watching the professional tennis tour at close quarters. In the early height of a Hobart summer as well.
The sight wasn’t always pretty but it was nearly always compelling. The Hobart tournament attracts players of every possible standing or experience. In January 2007 Serena Williams spent the week tuning up for the Australian Open (which she subsequently won) by getting as far the quarter finals in Hobart. She then thoughtlessly complained after losing to Sybille Bammer of Austria that it was unfair that her opponent ‘only played that well because it was against me’.
Most players came and went without anything approaching the fanfare of Serena Williams. Some were earning a steady living playing a game they presumably loved, winning often enough to retain a ranking high enough to earn automatic entry to the bigger tournaments and access to the better prize money, hotels, endorsements and luxuries like racquet stringers. Tournament regular Monica Niculescu, who’s won nearly 60 per cent of her matches in a career of more than 800 matches said to me once that, ‘Every day I have something that is hurting, the ankle, the leg, the back. I’m used to it.’
A psychological toll
The psychological toll could be particularly heavy. The sight of Jelena Dokic, sad-eyed and devoid of spirit after a late-night loss stays with me to this day. The joy of the game had left her long before that defeat.
Into this mix of permanently intersecting ambitions and career paths several short years ago entered Ashleigh Barty. Open-faced and honest she had to carry the weight of expectation that seems to way down every Australian tennis player of promise. There’s’ been plenty of them.
It would be hard to predict back then that the teenager from Ipswich was a world number one and grand slam champion in the making. She had a very good junior record and a level-headed approach which, while a good start, is no guarantee of much. History now shows that after an 18-month sabbatical from the lonely world of the WTA tour and a well-publicised stint with Brisbane Heat in the WBBL she’s negotiated the physical and mental demands of the tour with grand slam aplomb; the tennis equivalent of looking down at the blue planet.
Living in the moment
The former Liverpool manager Kenny Dalglish said to one of his players after his team won the 1986 FA Cup Final ‘Enjoy this son, this is as good as it gets.’ I wonder if Ash Barty, as she prepares for Wimbledon, the biggest tournament of the year, is thinking the same thing. She’s taken a rest from tournament play this week ahead of attempt to win the big one next week.
That’s what happens when you keep winning tennis matches, your body needs a bit of a break. Everything we’ve seen from Ash Barty so far this year suggests that she’s happy playing a match at a time, a point at a time. There’s so much good tennis ahead of her but at the age of 23 she’s already proved to us all that she’s a winner in the truest sense of the word.