Ash Barty was almost off Centre Court, the Venus Rosewater Dish balanced on one arm as she strode towards the tunnel, an aisle of ball boys and girls standing sentry and the heartened crowd beyond giving their final ovation to a Wimbledon winner who had captured their consciousness.
To observe small details in such a big setting, on such a big occasion, is not easy but several rows back, tucked behind a throng of photographers, was a woman wearing a T-shirt bearing the design of the Aboriginal flag. Barty pointed towards that woman, Mel Jones, the former cricketer and current co-chair of CA’s first nations advisory committee, and smiled. It was an eye for the detail that matters most to her, to her Ngarigo ancestry, and to the 500 different Aboriginal peoples who make up what we call Australia.
They include Evonne Goolagong Cawley, a Wiradjuri woman who, exactly 50 years ago, won this tournament for the first time and was also the last Australian woman to triumph here in 1980. And Cathy Freeman, the Kuku Yalanji woman who in 2000 became the first Aboriginal person to win an individual Olympic gold medal. Both have publicly expressed their pride in an athlete who, much like themselves, has gone some way to remedying the racial inequality that still exists in this country.
In the United States, Australia’s Olympic flag-bearer Patty Mills welled up talking about it after the basketball team’s warm-up win over Argentina.
“Just incredible, amazing,” Mills said. “Forty-one years since the last Australian woman to win Wimbledon, and that was Evonne Goolagong Cawley, and 50 years since her first Wimbledon title, then Ash does it in a dress that’s inspired by her idol in Evonne, during Naidoc week.
“These are all things that give you goosebumps when you’re talking about an amazing inspiration for everyone in Australia, especially Indigenous Australians. I even choke up a little bit thinking about it.”
This is the Ash Barty era, both on the court and off. Karolína Plíšková was merely the latest in a long line of vanquished opponents in wins that have kept her in the world No 1 spot since June 2019, when she claimed her first grand slam at French Open.
This was different, though, and not just because it is Wimbledon and she is now a more self-assured player. It was, as she said, “nothing short of a miracle” she was even able to play given she had aggravated a hip injury that ended her Roland Garros campaign only five weeks ago.
The state of her body meant she should not have even been competing. The state of the world made it logistically difficult. Indeed, the pandemic meant most of her family and friends were absent, her supporters’ box occupied only by the smallest circle of her ever-present team, including coach Craig Tyzzer and partner Garry Kissick. There were not many other familiar faces in the stands, either – save for that of Tom Cruise which, disconcertingly, looked frozen in time from about 20 years ago – and the tiny specks of green and gold were disproportionate to the years before the advent of Covid-19.
But perhaps it is all the should-nots that render her achievement all the more remarkable. That made her acutely angled winner into the opposite service box sing even louder, her composed recovery after failing to serve out the championship in the second set more buoying, and her rare show of emotion once she had finally done it more affecting.
This plot could not have been scripted and yet the protagonist, as is her way, played her part flawlessly. Mainly in the sense that she did not act at all. She was herself, as she has always been. After acknowledging Jones and and entering the All England Club, Barty exchanged pleasantries with the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge, accepted congratulations from Billie Jean King and Martina Navratilova, then rejoined her team and had a laugh in the corridor.
At home on the Gold Coast, her family were roaring in their living room. Many tennis fans – and not just Australians – were doing the same, clinging to a slice of something good amid all the misery of the past 18 months. The world needed a moment of relief and restoration, and Barty was the tonic.