When Michael Jordan decided to switch careers from basketball to baseball, the 31-year-old was already a veteran with almost 11 years of experience crammed in for the Chicago Bulls. In tennis’ parlance, Jordan’s decision sparks of certain similarity with that of Ashleigh Barty.
The Australian took a sabbatical from tennis in 2014 to take up cricket and play for the Brisbane Heat in the first edition of the women’s Big Bash League in 2015. The next year, in 2016, she returned back to tennis’ fold. Despite these similarities, there’s also a big gulf in the two circumstances spanning Jordan and Barty.
From promises to pressure
Going by the circumnavigation Barty has done between tennis and cricket and then back again, one could easily mistake the Australian to be a sportswoman with a good few years under her belt. It’s hard to fathom that Barty, who is in the second year of her comeback to tennis, is only 21 years old with the prospect of almost of a whole professional career awaiting her.
When Barty exchanged her tennis shoes with those of cricket, she was a promising player who was expected to bring laurels for Australia. The 2011 junior girls Wimbledon title winner struggled to do well in singles at the Majors, but looked to have hit her stride as she racked up three finals appearances in women’s doubles along with countrywoman Casey Dellacqua.
In 2013, Barty and Dellacqua reached the women’s doubles finals at Wimbledon, and the Australian and US Opens, which made them favourites of a sort. Contrastingly, it was the added weight of sustaining these renewed hopes that forced the (then) 17-year-old to take a step back and re-evaluate her commitment to tennis.
Right after she made the decision to play tennis again professionally in 2016, Barty was keen to downplay the tone of her return. “If it works, great. If it doesn’t, I can’t really complain. I’ve had a phenomenal career for the short time that I did play,” she had said. It was as if she were wanting the world to take its eyes off her and give her room to acclimatise to the sport again.
Using 2016 as a viable footstool seemed to have had done the trick for Barty. The 2017 season, then, has had her excel her own previous bests substantially. Not only in terms of mere tournament appearances, but also in the way she has had accumulated results throughout the year until now.
2017: The year of re-telling the tennis tale
The Ipswich native won her first singles Women’s Tennis Association career title at the Malaysian Open in March and reached the final of the Aegon Classic in Birmingham in June. But by reaching her first WTA Premier 5 final in Wuhan this week, Barty has bettered her career graph substantially.
She beat three top-10 players in Wuhan, starting with Johanna Konta in the second round, and Karolina Pliskova and Jelena Ostapenko in the quarter-finals and semi-finals respectively. Except for her first-round and semi-final win over Catherine Bellis and Ostapenko respectively, the rest of Barty’s matchups went the distance which, in turn, added to her mettle.
Furthermore, how about this for some statistical consideration? Prior to the start of the 2017 season, Barty was ranked outside the top-300 – in the 325th spot – of the women’s singles ranking. Almost 10 months down the line, she not only broke into the top-100 (besting her own previous career high of 129), she is also set to crack the top-30 for the first time in her career courtesy of her performances in Wuhan.
“I feel more comfortable on the court. I am playing with more freedom,” mused Barty about the week that has been in Wuhan. “I think we can just really enjoy the fact this week we’ve been able to string some really good matches together. It really has been a phenomenal year. For me, I don’t know if I thought it was all possible, but it’s certainly nice to be reaping the rewards,” she added.
It may not be as obvious as before, but certain de-emphasis still lingers in Barty’s statements. As though, she doesn’t want her performances and results to mushroom into a heavier-set of expectations crowding her as before.
To cut back to Jordan’s wanting to get re-acquainted with basketball, two words – “I’m back” – were enough to send everyone into a tizzy about seeing him take to the court again. He also had the wealth of experience on his back to help him tide through the quick build of anticipation surrounding his return. For Barty, the only way to navigate herself through tennis is by trying to re-explore its pages anew as if she were doing it for the first time, all over again.