Carrying the ‘world No. 1, top seed’ targets on her back, and hopes of a nation on her shoulders, Ashleigh Barty became the first Australian player to win the Australian Open singles title since 1978. During the fortnight that ended a 44-year wait, Barty had her full repertoire on display. The kick serve aka “the hopper”. The one-handed slice, two-handed drive backhands. The forehand dripping with heavy topspin. Risky drop shots, opportune volleys, and the all elite overhead.
The shot that generated the most buzz, however, was played during practice: Barty casually tucked the tennis ball off her hip, a textbook leg glance, pointed elbow and all.
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“It was a sweet little glance, wasn’t it?” laughs Andy Richards, cricket coach, proud Queenslander and a “fairweather tennis fan”. Richards, who trained Barty during her brief switch to cricket, gushes over his ward’s exploits at the Melbourne Park.
“She’s looked awesome. I think just in the last couple of years, she’s got so much more mature,” Richards says on the phone, minutes before the start of the final, from his Brisbane home where he’s putting out “beverages” for friends who’d come over to watch history being made. “Whatever happens, Australia is excited for her. We tend to put a fair bit of pressure on our people… I just think people will be happy for her because she’s just a genuine, really good human being. We have people all across the world that get a bit taken aback as to how she presents herself. And I can tell you from experience that how she presents is exactly how she is.”
“An 18-year-old with the maturity of a 30-year-old” was Richards’ first impression of Barty.
It was 2015, and Barty was a doubles contender (she reached three Grand Slam finals) and a singles’ prospect, when she walked away from a sport she had been playing since she was 4. Exhausted with the rigours of the Tour, she did not seek a protected ranking, but didn’t throw away her racquets either. Barty was coaching kids when she was invited to speak at the national women’s cricket team dinner.
There, she told Queensland cricketers Jess Jonassen, Delissa Kimmince and Beth Mooney: “I really wouldn’t mind giving cricket a go.”
“It was half a throwaway line, half-serious chat. The girls came back and told me,” says Richards, who was the coach of Queensland Fire and was putting together the team for Brisbane Heat for the inaugural Women’s Big Bash that year.
“I’d tried it with a few different sportspeople before so I thought we would give it a go. She came in and we just had a coffee and then I said okay, we’ll organise to have a hit and see what she looked like.”
At the hit, Barty, kitted up in borrowed gear, faced 150 deliveries. Richards reckons she missed three.
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“She’d never played the game, except for some backyard cricket. And during that first hit, she was probably already better than the bottom third of my squad. I asked her if she would like to come and train and she said no, not until she’d had another four or five hits,” says Richards. “She didn’t want to embarrass herself. She also didn’t want to put anybody out.”
Barty soon earned the spot. The next challenge was to earn camaraderie.
“Fitting into such a competitive environment is not always easy. The girls are not always necessarily accepting of people coming in from outside. A couple of our girls had a fair bit of friendly banter with Ash, and she gave back as much as she got. It seemed like she had been with the team for years. That’s not an easy thing to do in a group of competitive sporting women. But she did it seamlessly.”
Barty, expectedly, was “a coach’s dream”.
“An extraordinarily talented woman, her hand-eye coordination is as good as I’ve seen from a crossover sport point of view. Elite athletes like her have awareness about where their body needs to be, to execute their skill,” says Richards, who has also worked with Pakistan women’s team as an assistant coach and batting consultant.
A cursory glance at Barty’s game is enough to reveal why she was able to transfer her skills from the court to the pitch. How the 5’5 all-courter goes toe-to-toe with stronger specimens, getting on top of the bounce to ‘flat bat’ the forehand. How she bends and picks the ball with a double backhand, sometimes on the half-volley, and powers it deep cross-court.
“Obviously, the cow corner, sort of wide mid-on was a strength. But for me, it was her ability to play straight. At the back end of that first session, I said ‘I just want you to hit them as hard as you can as straight as you can’. Immediately, she got her body in position. Clearing the front leg and hitting it straight.”
On her debut for the Heat, Barty scored a 27-ball 39 — “There was a six that she hit straight out of the Junction Oval,” Richards recalls, “men are happy to hit the ball as far as she did that day ” — but had a largely indifferent season. The media attention around her, however, helped jumpstart the tournament.
“She added so much more to our sport from a professional point of view. We were at that crossroads, sort of moving into full professionalism in women’s cricket, and she was able to add a whole different perspective for the girls and us as well.”
But what did Barty get out of her cricketing sojourn? She has previously said that the 18 months away from tennis made her “a better person, on and off the court. A better tennis player.”
Richards believes cricket gave Barty a sense of belonging, and teammates for life.
“We’ve had a couple of chats about it. She’s very much a team-oriented person. If we look at her love for her family, her indigenous cultural background, there’s a strong feeling of belonging in all of that. In tennis, she didn’t have that as a young girl growing up, spending a lot of time away, overseas without a really strong network,” Richards says. Tennis is considered an individual sport. But you’ll notice that when she talks, she always says ‘we’. She talks about her team. I think she had a lot of fun with us, she had a lot of freedom. And she’s carried that forward.”
In an interview with the New York Times, given during her Big Bash days, Barty said: “Everyone is part of the squad, and when you’ve got 15, 16 girls around each other, everyone pushes each other on. It was a very good dynamic from the get-go, and I was just very lucky that they welcomed me in so easily… We played a game at the Gabba, and we won, and went down the shed to have a beer. I’d never had a beer after a win before.”
In the same piece, Rennae Stubbs, an Australian six-time Major champion, had opined: “Selfishly, would I love to see her come back and play tennis? Absolutely, because I still think that her best tennis is ahead of her.”
She returned in 2016, and has since achieved the world No. 1 ranking and three Grand Slam titles. Cricket, though, has never strayed far from her mind. Ongoing women’s Ashes was her distraction before Saturday’s final. She played cricket with her entourage, kit bag doubling as stumps. When not on the court, she pulls a Donald, volleying a golf ball against a wall with a bat.
Richards shares that Barty keeps in touch with her former teammates. And when in town, Barty and her fiance go to a game of cricket with Richards and family.
“I was devastated when she came up to me one day, and sheepishly said, ‘look, I think I want to go back to tennis’”, Richards says. “But deep down inside, I knew, that’s where she belonged.”
Richards knew that cricket’s loss was Australia’s gain. The sentiment was perhaps best summed up at an awards show by comedian Rove McManus, who broke down the Ash Barty-tennis-cricket love triangle.
“…If you love something, set it free – it may go have a crack at cricket and come back to you!”