Welcome back, Australian women’s tennis

Welcome back, Australian women’s tennis. It’s been a while. Too long, in fact. We’ve missed you.

Apart from a brief and spectacular appearance in 2011, when Sam Stosur won the US Open, you’ve been AWOL for almost two generations.

In fact, the average Australian sports fan could probably identify more Tasmanian Senators than home-grown female players who’ve given the WTA a genuine shake over the past 40 years.

Yes, there was Stosur and her lone Major triumph in Flushing Meadows – on the 10th anniversary of 9/11 no less. But almost another decade has passed, and Stosur hasn’t come close to parlaying that breakthrough into anything resembling a consistent threat on tour. In fact, the only thing reliable about the Queenslander’s subsequent form has been her annual meltdowns on home soil each summer.

As a result, Australian women’s tennis squandered a golden opportunity to seize the initiative from their male counterparts. The brattish antics of Bernard Tomic and Nick Kygrios starved the tennis-loving public for a galvanising hero. Unlike the terrible two, Stosur had charm and temperament. Alas, she didn’t have the game to keep us interested.

But just when it appeared the rampant growth of women’s cricket, football and AFL would condemn tennis to secondary profile status, along comes the most unlikely saviour.

She’s 166cm tall and built more like a shot-putter than a shot-maker. She was a childhood prodigy who tasted incredible success as a junior, only to succumb to the pressure of having to repeat the dose in the pro ranks. In 2014 she quit tennis altogether and defected to cricket’s Big Bash League, although she could’ve just as easily taken up golf or surfing, such is her all-round talent and co-ordination. Then, almost just as quickly as she vanished, she re-appeared in 2016.

And ever since, with limited fuss and fanfare, Ash Barty has been rising. And rising. And rising. The improvement was perceptible in 2017, her first full season back delivering a pair of third round appearances in the Australian and US Opens and maiden WTA title. She finished that year ranked 17 – up an astonishing 257 places from the season before. In 2018, she pumped the gas a little harder; winning two WTA titles and making it to the final 16 in New York. She rose a further two places in the rankings.

But this year, Barty really has the throttle humming. She’s already won the prestigious Miami Open, and cracked the Quarter Finals at Melbourne Park following a memorable three-set victory over former World No. 1 Maria Sharipova. Suddenly, she’s in the top 10 and, according to a recent New York Times survey of current players and coaches, possesses the most dangerous backhand slice on tour.

And all that was before her resurrection was truly minted over the Easter Long Weekend. Playing in her home town of Brisbane, Barty led Australia’s Fed Cup team to its first final in 26 years with an unbeaten effort in its semi-final tie against Belarus. She has now won 14 straight rubbers – across both singles and doubles. With Stosur unsuccessful in both of her singles matches, Barty stepped up when her country needed it most. Not once. Not twice. But three times.

That’s not an easy thing to do; especially for an athlete who’s fronted the public confessional and admitted to routine failure under pressure. Barty is not the first to struggle with expectation, which in her case exploded after she won a Wimbledon junior title as a 15-year-old. But she is one of the few to concede her shortcomings and recognise the two things necessary to rectify them: time and space.

Barty loved tennis, but during those difficult transition years, the day-to-day relationship floundered. Had she stayed the course out of filial duty, it might well have ended in irredeemable fashion. The maturity she displayed to take a break, get some perspective, and, over the natural course of time, realise what she wanted most, is lesson to anyone at the cross-roads of their career.

Now, there is something comforting in the gradual arc of her revival. It is not meteoric. It is not dizzying. And it does not suggest impermanence; an all too familiar quality in sportspeople of Barty’s vintage nowadays.

It is controlled. It is constant. It is firmly rooted. Barty doesn’t look like she’s in a rush to get to the top, because she’s not. Poised to celebrate her 23rd birthday this week, she’s already made sacrifices that would be inconceivable to the instant gratification set. She’s used the greatest gift of youth – time – very wisely.
And that would hint that when Barty’s curve does reach the top, it will stretch out and continue at that altitude for a very long time to come.