Ash Barty never had a favorite tennis player. Even when she was growing up, she never really watched tennis.
“I did everything else,” Barty told The Post. “Tennis for me was a sport I began playing and should have became more passionate about when I got a little bit older. But no, I didn’t watch tennis when I was young.”
So, maybe it isn’t such a surprise that even as the Australian rose up the ranks of the sport — and was one of the top junior and doubles players in the world — she walked away from it. She is back now, and making her return to the grand slam stage at the Australian Open.
At the start of her tennis career, Barty, at just age 15, burst onto the scene, where she won the Wimbledon juniors title in 2011. Her dominance at the junior level teased fans with a glimpse of the future.
When she reached the WTA in 2013, success soon followed. In her first season she reached the women’s doubles finals in three grand slam tournaments, playing alongside fellow Aussie Casey Dellacqua. At the end of 2013, she finished with a career-high ranking of 129 in the world. Barty, then 17, extended her stardom when she represented Australia in the Fed Cup.
She had all the makings to be the next face of Australian tennis. Once compared earlier in her career to former world no.1 Martina Hingis, Barty was supposed to carry the torch from former US Open champion and Aussie Sam Stosur.
But 2014 brought mixed results. On the positive side, Barty appeared in two Grand Slams — Roland Garros and the US Open — and won two doubles titles on the ITF Circuit. But she dropped to 218th in the world. What appeared as a young star just adjusting to a new life turned into a struggle not worth dealing with.
So Barty did the unpredictable — she abandoned tennis.
“At the end of the day, it was a game that I wanted to have fun in, enjoy,” Barty told the New York Times last year. “And for me it turned into a little bit of a slog, and I wasn’t enjoying it quite as much as I would have liked.”
The spotlight became too bright. She said at the time stresses from constantly playing around the world made it easy to step away from the game. She lost the passion to play, tennis started to resemble something other than a game.
But she didn’t completely distance herself from tennis. Barty taught tennis lessons to younger players. Her next move came when she was invited a dinner with Australia’s national women’s cricket team, where she spoke about the stresses of traveling around the world.
Ash Barty is now a cricket player :( pic.twitter.com/AF9TlQgi96
— José Morgado (@josemorgado) December 5, 2015
But that meeting with the cricket team turned opened her to a new opportunity. A physiotherapist who she knew through tennis invited her to a practice with a few girls from the Queensland Fire, girls she grew up playing with during her early years of tennis. There they hit some balls together, and the group was so impressed that they wanted her to start playing.
She signed with Brisbane Heat for the inaugural season of the Women’s Big Bash league, where for the first time in her life she was part of a team. While she found success and drew national recognition to women’s cricket, her brief spell playing cricket created an itch for the court again. It also expanded her horizons.
“Any time you can play a different sport where you are learning different skills can help you in everything,” Barty, now 20, said. “I think for me it was important to get a taste of a different sport and learn a few different skills.”
After about a year playing cricket, Barty soon realized where her passion was — it was with tennis. And in February 2016, she announced she was making a comeback, all thanks to a hitting session with her former partner, Dellacqua.
“I never put a line through it saying, ‘I was never going to play [tennis] again,'” Barty said. “I went down to see Casey for a quick catch-up with her and her family. We jumped back on the court and it was nice for both of us to be back out there hitting with each other. It was probably the last straw that decided I would play again.”
What she calls a “natural progression” has the tennis world salivating at the sight of her back on the court. Barty’s self scouting report touts her slice backhand, which she says makes her different than other players. But she can also flatten out the stroke, and force opponents behind the baseline.
Whatever it is, Barty, who puts the “we” in tennis, is taking this time around a little slower than the last.
“This season is still very much a developmental season,” she said. “We only started hitting balls about 10 months ago, so it’s still new again.”
While she calls them baby steps, Barty sent a message to the tennis world earlier this month.
At the Bribane International, she dominated Serbia’s Aleksandra Krunic 6-2, 6-3. She advanced to the round of 16 to face two-time Grand Slam winner and current world no.1 Angelique Kerber. There, Barty held her own, taking the second set 6-2 from the German and forcing the match into a deciding set before falling. Going shot-for-shot with the best in the world has her confident and excited for Melbourne.
“It’s been a couple years since I last played,” Barty said as she approaches her Australian Open first-round match up with Annika Beck on Sunday (approximately 9:30 p.m. EST on WatchESPN.com).
“It was strange watching the Australian Open last year and not playing. So I think I’m just really excited to get back out there and hopefully we can play well.”
Barty still does not watch a lot of tennis, but understands that she has to approach her second chance differently than the first.
“This time around, I’m a little bit older and a lot more mature,” Barty said. “I’m going to try to enjoy it a lot more this time.”
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