'I thought that was it': why Ash Barty almost gave up tennis for good

The satellite city emerges from a forest of eucalyptus. Large brick houses sit on well-tended blocks of land, where boats and motor homes loiter in the driveways. The shrieks of small children flying down the footpaths on bikes are the only sound in this quiet, comfortable suburban setting. Springfield, south-west of Brisbane, is Australia’s first privately built city, and the country’s largest master-planned community.

This carefully organised, middle-class world of family homes is where Ashleigh Barty grew up in warm winter sun, surrounded by straggly Australian bush. And it’s where tennis’s golden girl – now just one win away from becoming world No 1 – still lives, five minutes from her parents.

Her father, Robert, works in the government and is a Ngaragu Indigenous Australian on his maternal side; her mother, Josie, the daughter of English immigrants, is a radiographer. Robert was an amateur golf champion in the 80s. It was a typical Australian household, where the sporting activities of the children were central to family life. And it became apparent early that this youngest daughter was something else.

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Barty was only four when she found an old squash racket and started bashing balls against the garage wall for hours. Her father rang the local coach Jim Joyce at West Brisbane Tennis Centre. “He said ‘we don’t take them until they are eight’,” Robert has said. “We went down and he threw her a ball and she whacked it over his head. She kept doing that until he said ‘you can come back next week’. He said she had it written all over her face.”

West Brisbane Tennis Centre is a small oasis in a sprawling industrial landscape, with tankers and trucks thundering down the road outside. At a gate there is a sign saying “Open 7 Days”. Usually Joyce can be seen on the courts, patiently coaching energetic children in sun visors. But now he’s on his way to Wimbledon. On one side, the sun is eclipsed by a vast warehouse and sagging palm trees lean over the four courts where Barty spent her childhood lobbing balls back and forward. Because she was, and is, small, Joyce devised a game that was varied and creative – techniques that remain integral to her game today.

“Her focus and concentration were just incredible” Joyce has said. By the age of nine, she was playing against 15-year-old boys, and by 15 she was playing against adults.

While Joyce worked with her prodigious skill, he also gave her another kind of foundation, that of being a decent human being.

Robert told the ABC: “Jim had four criteria, to be a nice person, to have fun, to be respected and respect others, and if you can play tennis after that it would be a bonus.”

As she won tournament after tournament and trophy after trophy, Robert and Josie echoed Joyce with their own values. “Her tennis achievements are obvious but we are most proud of the way she conducts herself, in tennis and in life,” Robert says now. “The way Ash treats her family, her friends, her team and anyone around her is a reflection of what a wonderful girl she is.”

When they were teenagers, Barty and her sisters embraced their Indigenous background, learning about the Ngaragu people and registering with the clan. Barty identifies strongly as Indigenous Australian – “my heritage is really important to me”.

Retired tennis champion and Channel Nine sports broadcaster Todd Woodbridge first met Barty when he was running development programs for Tennis Australia. “She came on to our radar around 11 or 12,” he says.

“What stood out at that particular time was her ability to have soft hands and be creative with the tennis, not just whacking a ball aimlessly. There was already that intuition of a crafty player. She always had what I call a placid nature. What she has been blessed with is having parents who have handled her almost perfectly, supported her and guided her, and kept pressure away from her as much as possible.”

Ashleigh Barty at Roland Garros with the French Open 2019 trophy

Ashleigh Barty at Roland Garros with the French Open 2019 trophy. Photograph: Clive Brunskill/Getty Images

Like any elite athlete, Barty has sacrificed her childhood and teenage years to the game – to endlessly hitting the ball over the net, to the thousands of hours of training, to being a perfectionist. By 14, she had been chosen for international tours, but was lonely and homesick, phoning home from Europe in tears, too young to be so far away from family. One year she was home for only 27 days. At 15, she won Junior Wimbledon, Overwhelmed by the attention, she bolted home, where she faced more fanfare. “It was crazy” say her sisters of the people waiting to greet her at the airport.

The satisfaction of being so good at the game had gotten lost in the celebrity and media frenzy, the pressure, the expectations. Moving to Melbourne, Barty kept training for another year, sliding into depression – until she just couldn’t do it anymore.

Says Woodbridge: “Everything relates to a win and loss. When you have a few losses, your self-worth is examined and that becomes really challenging for a teenager or someone in their early 20s. Because you think you are failing and that causes huge anxiety.”

Barty had always been the sort of person to internalise, according to her sisters, and now she withdrew completely. Her mentor and role model Australian tennis legend Evonne Goolagong Cawley sent her a text telling her it was a good decision and to go fishing. It was a tremendous relief.

When the dazzling prodigy walked away from tennis, no one understood more than her father. “When she decided to finish tennis, we knew she was struggling, but we didn’t realise how much she didn’t like the attention and the limelight. We said ‘OK you have got to be happy darl, we are here to support you through the whole process’.”

Coach Jim Joyce with Ash Barty

Coach Jim Joyce with Ash Barty. ‘Her focus and concentration were just incredible,’ he says. Photograph: Clive Brunskill/Getty Images

Robert said he too had suffered from manic depression and might have passed it on to his daughter. Barty took medication for depression for two years and consulted a therapist, learning to open up.

During that time, Andy Richards, coach of the Brisbane Heat cricket team, heard that she had joked about taking up cricket, and gave her a call. “We had a chat and a coffee and went and hit some balls. She was a bowling machine, she hit 150 balls and probably mistimed five or six. She had never played before. She fitted into the squad very quickly and easily.

“She was honest and open about her struggles. She got obsessed with the training and we would have to tell her she didn’t have to come in and hit balls everyday. She said I just want to play a sport that has got a stick in it.

“She is a freak,” Richards says.

Her 18 months with Brisbane Heat was a time of healing for Barty, a chance to live a normal life, to grow. She got to take back some of those teenage years she had missed. After a game, the girls would go out for a beer, something she had never done before. “She found out what it meant to have friends, and teammates” says Richards. At the beginning, he invited her to a camp, “in a gully where we did a lot of night hiking and crawling through mud. I have got a video of her neck deep in mud, with a massive smile on her face”.

In her spare time, Barty would coach tennis students along with Joyce, sometimes hinting at opening her own tennis school.

“I thought she would never go back to tennis, I thought that was it,” Robert Barty said recently. We never raised it, and one day we came home and there were four boxes of tennis balls on the front door step. And that was Ash going back to tennis.”

Later she would say she had “missed the ebbs and flows, the emotions you get from winning and losing, they are unique. When you put yourself out on a line, you become vulnerable and try and do things that no one ever thinks of.”

Woodbridge believes that “buying that time bought confidence and experience” for Barty.

Her comeback is the stuff of sporting legend. When she returned to the game in June 2016, she was unranked. She started again at the bottom, playing constantly at minor events across the world, sweating for every point. Within six months, she had gained a ranking of 325. From then on, her ascendancy was supersonic – she was mowing down the world’s most celebrated and seeded players. “I can still remember 12 months ago when she cracked the top hundred, she sent a text. Josie wondered if she would ever be seeded,” Robert has said.

It was only three years after she walked away from tennis that Barty won the French Open, in a straight sets victory, becoming world No 2 – 48 years after her hero Goolagong did the same. This time, the girl from Springfield embraced it. This time – at the right time – all the different parts of Ash Barty fell perfectly into place.

Kieran Gibbs, a sports coordinator at South West Indigenous Network, is a Githabul and Kooma man who has known Barty since she played cricket. He now works with her as a national Indigenous tennis ambassador and told Guardian Australia “she is really shy, quite reserved, quiet – a really simple relaxed, just-goes-about-her-business type person”.

“Part of our culture is genuine respect and respecting your elders and respecting your other mob. It is about remembering who you are, and what you are and displaying that every day. Ash is showing who we are to the world.”

source: theguardian.com