Buoyant Barty embracing return to tennis puzzle

  • Alex Sharp

One line particularly stood out from Ash Barty’s weekend press conference.

“When push came to shove, those big moments, I was clear, I knew what I wanted to do, I just had to execute.”

Perfect preparation, match wins and a clarity of thought. The world No.1 sounds ready for her home Grand Slam and from the evidence on court, looks ready for another absorbing Australian Open. 

On Sunday the 24-year-old held aloft the Yarra Valley Classic trophy after an accomplished week. The slice was extra cutting, the serve packed a punch (35 aces in four matches) and the forehand was booming. 

The 2019 Roland Garros champion navigated past four world class opponents despite 11 months away from competitive action.

“There's always a little bit of the unknown. I certainly get confidence from the work that I do off the court during pre-season with my team. Not necessarily hit the panic button if we don't get a win straightaway,” stated the top seed, having neutralised the weapons of AO 2020 finalist Garbine Muguruza 7-6(3), 6-4 in a quality final.

“I think for us it's doing the work, sticking to our processes and sticking to our routines that we know work. If you go about it the right way, make the right decisions for the right reasons, you know you're putting yourself in good stead.”

Barty chose not to travel for tournaments after the Qatar Open in February last year, instead embracing family time and recuperating at home.

“I feel very fortunate to have had the year that I have had. Certainly none of my decisions have any regret,” continued the world No.1. “I enjoyed my time at home. There was nothing but positive vibes and good feelings coming out of the whole year for me.”

Although the competitive instincts were always in the background and Barty was relishing the return to the puzzle tennis presents. 

“I’m enjoying absolutely every second… I couldn’t get on the court quick enough over these last couple of months,” said Barty with a beaming smile. 

“I think that's a positive thing, is that every challenge that was thrown at me this week, we were able to find a way through, find a way to problem solve, work our way through.

“In an individual sport, you're trying in a way to play chess, outmove your opponent. I think for me that's something I really enjoy about tennis. It's certainly very nice to be back testing myself against the best in the world.”

MORE: Day 2 schedule of play

The Australian taliswoman begins her AO 2021 title tilt against world No.77 Danka Kovinic (first meeting) on Tuesday, with compatriot Dasha Gavrilova a possible second round opponent.

As fans and media pour over the draw to predict and muse over the next champion at Melbourne Park, Barty is keen to bat away the inevitable questions regarding external and internal expectations. 

“There's no extra pressure for me, that's for sure. It's the same whether it's a Grand Slam or a first level of a tour event, any other match. I think the extra pressure and the extra chatter comes from you guys,” maintained the 24-year-old, highlighting those trusted processes, controlling the controllables. 

“For me, my focus is on my first round come Tuesday. We look forward to a new challenge, a different opponent. That's all I can worry about,” added Barty.

“We go out there and we do the research. We try to bring the match to my hand as quickly as possible and as often as possible. It's not always just about the tennis sometimes, it's about how you can control the court.”

There’s a symmetry to Barty’s progress on home soil in 2020 with this season.

Last year the Queenslander won the Adelaide International, prior to a semi-final run at AO 2020, eventually just pipped by eventual champion Sofia Kenin 7-6(6), 7-5 on Rod Laver Arena.

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Ash Barty and Sofia Kenin have both enjoyed strong lead-ups to the 2021 Australian Open

Well, last week’s impressive return to competitive action yielded another trophy on Australian courts in the week preceding her home major. There could also be a rematch at the same stage with Kenin.

“It's very different. I think the circumstances and the situation is extremely different. Both are unique. I'm just trying to come out here and do the best that I can. I've done the preparation. I've eaten my Brussels sprouts, done everything to put myself in a position that I can go out there and perform at the best level I can,” claimed the top seed. 

“For me, I go into this Australian Open excited. Now I'm really happy to be back playing tennis with an opportunity to play in front of a crowd here at the Australian Open. It’s really special.”