Burnt out and depressed, Ashleigh Barty threw in her promising tennis career to go fishing and play cricket. Three years later, the 21-year-old heads into the 2018 Australian Open as our best hope.
Pock! Pock! Pock!
It is just before 9am on a Wednesday in late November, two days before another long Australian summer begins, and the outdoor expanse of Melbourne Park is already baking in the hard sun. On the baseline of Court 20 stands Ashleigh Barty, her feet bouncing on the bright blue Plexicushion surface, crouching and pivoting and whacking little yellow balls under a clear sky.
The shots ring out again and again, and none seem to catch the far edges of the young right-hander’s racquet. They are instead measured and struck in the sweetest spot: each one producing that full, round sound of something middled, something flush.
Barty, 21, is on her second day of pre-season training, warming up with the emerging junior star Matthew Dellavedova, 17. During a break in rallies – after tipping a large plastic jug of water down his gullet – the young man offers a panting précis of his seasoned opponent.
“Different to other girls,” he says, catching his breath, wiping his brow. “More heavy topspin. More power … More like a guy, to be honest.”
Merely watching Barty wind up is a study in quiet, effortless menace. Then she unleashes her forehand – POCK!!! – and it is whipcrack spare, a perfect passing winner.
The shot looks world class because Barty is world class. Nick Kyrgios, who is just over there on Court 18, spinning his racquet on one finger like a gunslinger, is perhaps the biggest name in Australian tennis, but in men’s singles he is ranked 21 in the world. Barty, in women’s singles, is ranked 17. She is the most highly rated player in the country…
Images by Simon Schluter