Barty burns bright under the spotlight

  • Reem Abulleil

“Never in doubt @ashbar96,” tweeted John Millman as he watched his compatriot Ash Barty become the first Australian woman in 10 years to reach the quarterfinals at Melbourne Park.

“Barty you Beautyyyy. Aussie Aussie Aussieeee,” posted pro surfer Sally Fitzgibbons, following Barty’s three-set triumph over Maria Sharapova on Sunday.

MORE: Barty prevails in see-sawing thriller

In the stands at Rod Laver Arena, Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison was one of the thousands of Barty fans applauding the talented 22-year-old.

The Queenslander is the toast of Melbourne at the moment, which makes it even harder to imagine that just over three years ago, Barty was not even competing in tennis. At age 18, she decided to take an indefinite break from the sport, and picked up a cricket bat instead. It was a bold and uncommon move from a player touted as a teenage prodigy, and it proved to be the best decision she ever made.

“No, absolutely. I needed to take that time away,” the No. 15 seed said on Sunday when asked if she thinks she’d be in this position had she not taken that break.

“I feel like I came back a better person on and off the court, a better tennis player. For me, having that 18 months off was vital.”

Finding that fire and passion for the game was the missing ingredient for Barty early on, and when she finally captured it, it was only a matter of time before she made her mark on the women’s tour. It was almost inevitable, considering how crafty and talented she is.

But Barty is the first to tell you that talent can only get you so far, and it is actually hard work, maturity, and self-belief that have now taken her to her first Grand Slam quarterfinal and positioned her at the edge of the top 10.

It’s the perfect coming of age story. The way she’s been going about her business and conducting herself in extreme pressure situations has been most impressive.

“Beyond proud of you @ashbar96. Proud of your win today but mostly of how you continue to hold yourself and the person you are. You’ve come so far sweetie and deserve it all,” said her former doubles partner Casey Dellacqua on social media.

The last Australian standing across both singles draws, Barty has thrived on the home support this month – first in Sydney, where she lost a close final to Petra Kvitova last week, and now in Melbourne.

She came into the tournament with many eyes on her, and is living up to her top billing.

Barty could be the first Australian woman to make the AO semifinals since 1984

“It's just so exciting. I mean, these are the moments we train and we practice and prepare for,” said an elated Barty on Sunday. “Sitting down with my team late last year, it was one of the goals we set out that we wanted to go deep into Slams, and I feel like that was the next step for me.

“It's amazing that it is happening in Australia. I have given myself the opportunity and the chance to play in front of the best crowd in the world on one of the best courts in the world and in my home Slam. There is absolutely nothing better.”

Capitalising on the opportunity is precisely what Barty has been doing. There were telling moments during Sunday’s match against Sharapova that were testament to that.

Saving break points at 4-3 in the decider after nearly blowing a 4-0 lead was courageous. Rebounding from a double fault on match point by firing an ace was clutch. Finally securing the victory with another ace on her fourth match point was simply inspiring.

“It’s incredible what she’s doing especially after stopping and playing women’s cricket for a little bit, coming back and finding that love for the game again. She’s really talented,” Australian player Thanasi Kokkinakis said of his countrywoman.

“She’s pretty chilled out, very easy-going, easy to hang around with. She doesn’t play like a typical sort of female. She’s very crafty, very good forehand and she uses her slice well, a lot of girls don’t know how to deal with that.

“She’s also very good at the net. She mixes it up a fair bit and I don’t think people know how to handle it. She’s really good at what she does. I think she’s a dark horse for the tournament for sure.”

He’s not the only one saying that. As she prepares to take on Kvitova in the quarterfinals – their second meeting in 11 days – Barty is thrilled to get another crack at the Czech two-time Grand Slam champion so soon after their Sydney final.

She plans on sticking to her routines, treating it like any other match, despite the fact that history will be on the line when she takes to the court against Kvitova on Tuesday. If she wins, she’ll be the first Australian woman to make the Australian Open semifinals since Wendy Turnbull in 1984.

What’s the secret to Barty’s success ahead of her next test?

“I think I love to play with freedom and fun and try and create as much variety as possible,” she says. 

“I think every day I try and challenge myself to add another string to my bow in a sense and try and become the complete player. I think that's my biggest goal.”