Slow and steady wins the race, right?
But how can a player who is only 23 be called slow? How can you say her first Grand Slam title was a result of her long-time steadiness when her career started from scratch only three years ago?
Because Ashleigh Barty is that rare kind of player who was always meant for big things, a thought that once weighed her down so much she had to step away from tennis.
The Australian was a prodigy who won the Wimbledon junior title as 15-year-old. She reached the doubles final of three Grand Slams with compatriot Casey Dellacqua as a 17-year-old.
And by the time she was 18, she had quit the game... tired of the grind, loneliness and pressure of tennis. She played for Brisbane Heat in the Women’s Big Bash League and coaches reckon she had what it takes to play for Australia as well.
But tennis was the true calling and deciding to move away from it turned out to best decision for her career because she returned finding herself “a little bit more as a person.”
In 2016, she returned, unranked, refreshed, ready to struggle and armed with new perspective.
In 2017, she won her first career title in Kuala Lumpur ending the season ranked inside the Top 20.
In 2018, she crumbled from a set and a break up against Serena Williams in the second round of the French Open.
In 2019, she won her first singles Grand Slam title, beating teenager Marketa Vondrousova 6-1, 6-3 in the final.
Slow and steady does indeed win.
Building up to her first Major
There was no doubt that the soon-to-be world No 2 always had it in her. But she was also dangerously close to being among the dozens of supremely talented players on the WTA tour who have the game to make deep runs but fall short of a Major title.
The Australian has one of the most versatile game styles on tour. She mixes precision with power to carve out points in a unique way that makes her all-court game pleasing and potent. Her serve is strong and effective and she leads the first serve charts at this year’s tournament. Standing at 5’ 5’’, her court coverage on return is swift and sure. Her forehand is commanding on both flanks and her double-handed backhand can dictate points. But her slice backhand is a weapon while her drop shot can kill the ball.
The one thing missing in her tool chest was perhaps the killer instinct. Too often in the past, she had gone down at big moments: to Serena last year, to Petra Kvitova at the Sydney final and Australian Open quarter-final this year, to Kiki Mladenovic at the Italian Open.
To counter this, she has been working with a mental coach Ben Crowe, who has worked with her favourite Australian Rules football team Richmond and other pro athletes along with coach Craig Tyzzer. It has made a huge difference to her mentality, an aspect she has never been shy to discuss. The youngster is very honest about the fact that she would not have won that trophy had she not briefly left tennis to rejuvenate her mental health.
And the way she has built her way up to the Coupe Suzanne Lenglen shows why ‘Barty Party’, as she is fondly known, showed that she stands out in this ridiculously talented crop of Under-25 WTA players.
At the end of last year, she won the WTA Elite Trophy to add to her US Open women’s double title with Coco Vandeweghe. In March, she lifted her then biggest career title the Miami Open. She had her best Grand Slam finish in front of her home crowd.
She almost bottled it again in the semi-finals to Amanda Anisimova. Barty lead 5-0 in the first set, before losing it in the tiebreak. But with grit and her all-court game, she clawed her way back to beat the 17-year-old, who had stunned defending champion Simona Halep, 6-7(4), 6-3, 6-3.
It’s why her relatively lopsided win the final – which raised questions about quality – should not be clouded given how she had already conquered a much bigger battle in the semis.
The 23-year-old didn’t have an easy draw by any standard. She had to battle against strong competition en route to the championship, defeating Australian Open semi-finalist Danielle Collins, Serena Williams conqueror Sofia Kenin and last year’s semi-finalist Madison Keys, before taking down the two teen sensations.
One look at the tweets of her beaten opponents and peers tell you the kind of presence the Australian has on tour. Andrea Petkovic and Keys were almost happy to get “their ass beaten”, Vondrousva called it a tennis lesson.
The delicious irony is that her first Major came on clay.
Barty, a Wimbledon junior winner, wasn’t very fond of the surface. She had won just two main draw matches her five previous French Open appearances. Last year, she had actually said “Every week on clay is a week closer to grass.” Her parents, perhaps not expecting this run, were set to join her only for the grass season.
But in yet another testament of her versatility, she reached the quarterfinals in Madrid, won the Rome doubles title with Victoria Azarenka after a disappointing singles loss before a right arm injury kept her out of Strasbourg. And weeks later, she became the first Australian in 46 years to lift the French Open and only the second indigenous Australian after Evonne Goolagong Cawley.
With the first, and perhaps toughest barrier crossed, can she keep the momentum heading onto her favourite surface? It will depend a lot on her mentality but from the evidence on Parisian clay, this is just the beginning of the ‘Barty party’.