monster dr dre beats headphones Ashleigh Barty heads into the Australian Open 2018 as our best hope
It is just before 9am on a Wednesday in late November, two days before another long Australian summer begins, and the outdoor expanse of Melbourne Park is already baking in the hard sun. On the baseline of Court 20 stands Ashleigh Barty, her feet bouncing on the bright blue Plexicushion surface, crouching and pivoting and whacking little yellow balls under a clear sky.
The shots ring out again and again, and none seem to catch the far edges of the young right hander’s racquet. They are instead measured and struck in the sweetest spot: each one producing that full, round sound of something middled, something flush.
Barty, 21, is on her second day of pre season training, warming up with the emerging junior star Matthew Dellavedova, 17. During a break in rallies after tipping a large plastic jug of water down his gullet the young man offers a panting prcis of his seasoned opponent.
“Different to other girls,” he says, catching his breath, wiping his brow. “More heavy topspin. More power More like a guy, to be honest.”
Merely watching Barty wind up is a study in quiet, effortless menace. Then she unleashes her forehand POCK!!! and it is whipcrack spare, a perfect passing winner.
The shot looks world class because Barty is world class. Nick Kyrgios, who is just over there on Court 18, spinning his racquet on one finger like a gunslinger, is perhaps the biggest name in Australian tennis, but in men’s singles he is ranked 21 in the world. Barty, in women’s singles, is ranked 17. She is the most highly rated player in the country.
Only 16 women on Earth are currently better than her at tennis. Can you even imagine being that good at what you do?
This training session, though, is not about showing off what makes her so good. “Today is about volume,” says her coach, Craig Tyzzer, which means hitting the ball often. Tennis is a sport in which natural ability means almost nothing without ascetic devotion, and Barty has just returned from three weeks off.
“It still feels foreign,” she says, laughing ruefully, her entire face caked in a white smear of sunscreen. “My timing is off. Movement isn’t great. But we’ll get there. We’ll get there.”
Three years ago, getting to where Barty is now is something no one would have predicted. Three years ago, she was best known as a prodigy who, unable to cope with the rigours of the circuit, had given the game away. She was exhausted. She was confused. She was depressed. She quit tennis, took a break, did some coaching, and in 2015 dipped her toe in the cricket Women’s Big Bash League for the Brisbane Heat, proving she is no novelty act but an elite and versatile athlete. (Without practice she plays off a 10 handicap at golf, too.)
Now she is back and, as a young, warm, disciplined, gifted and emotionally mature Indigenous woman who loves the game, plays it exceptionally well and regards that as a privilege she might also be the hero that Australian tennis needs.
After practice, Barty has to film a short promotional video for Tennis Australia. She stands inside the air conditioned National Tennis Centre, staring down a lens and smiling.
“Hey, ball kids, you do an amazing job! We love what you do! We arrgghh that’s not right!” she says, slapping her hands together. “Faaaaarrrr out! I never need two takes.”
On the fourth try she nails her line, then fist bumps the cameraman. Afterwards, we walk across Olympic Boulevard to grab coffee at the Glasshouse Cafe, attached to the Collingwood Football Club. Barty is an avid AFL fan, specifically for the Richmond Tigers. During a tournament in Wuhan, China, in September, she seriously considered flying to Melbourne and back between matches, in order to watch the Tigers in the AFL grand final. (They won, in case you hadn’t noticed.) Her manager, Nikki Craig, who also works with ex AFL players including Simon Black, and surfer Stephanie Gilmore, says Barty takes a footy overseas at all times. “They kick it around on court beforehand. It’s part of her warm up. The crowds love it.”
Barty grew up far from the AFL heartland, though,
in Springfield, a suburb of Ipswich, west of Brisbane. Her father, Robert, works in government, and her mother, Josie, is a radiographer. Robert says Ashleigh didn’t want to play netball like her two older sisters Sara, 26, and Ali, 24 “didn’t want to play what she thought was a girls’ game” so she tried tennis.
She wasn’t yet five when she met junior tennis coach Jim Joyce. Joyce doesn’t like kids starting that young. He sends them away until they are seven or eight. “But the first ball I threw to her, bang!” Joyce says. “She hit it right back.” Barty’s hand eye coordination was exceptional, he says, yet her focus was what truly stood out. “The whole time I was talking to the other kids, twice her age, she was just staring at me. She never took her eyes off me once.”
At home she found an old wooden racquet in the shed, and stood in front of the exterior brick wall of the living room. “I used to hit the ball against that wall every day after school, for hours on end,” she says, sipping a glass of water and grinning. “It used to do Mum and Dad’s heads in.”
Joyce quickly recognised her gifts but also the shortcoming of Barty being, well, short (166 centimetres, or five foot five). And so he fashioned a game built on variety, including the serve and volley, the single slice backhand and the kick serve. Then he would challenge her with new and unpredictable shot combinations. “You force a chip slice backhand, then a quick switch to a volley forcing her to practise her transition and she would nail it,” he says. “You can try those things with all girls, but they can’t all do it.”
He also taught unorthodox lessons in winning and losing. In a carnival when she was six, little Ash was winning too easily, so Joyce “rigged” the final by pitting her against a much older player, just to see her beaten. “But she came off that court smiling her head off. It was a little test, and I learnt that she could take it straight away.”
With her parents’ blessing, Joyce also held Barty back from the tournament circuit, avoiding the siren song of points and rankings. At nine, he instead had her practising against 15 year old boys. When she was 12 she was playing against male adults. At one tournament in Brisbane, Joyce gave an opponent explicit clues on how to beat Barty. And when she won a tournament in Rockhampton, then carried the trophy in to tennis training, Joyce put it in the bin. “I was only mucking around. But I said, ‘That’s how important that trophy will be when you go on to other things.’ Because deep down I knew this was a kid that had all the chances of going far.”
And she did. Barty won so many cups, in fact, that she and Joyce began to recycle them, ripping off the engraved plates, then donating the trophies to battling local tennis groups.
Around the same time, Barty and her sisters learnt about their Indigenous background, which derives from their great grandmother, a member of the Ngaragu people from southern NSW and north eastern Victoria. The three girls began the process of registering with the clan, and learning what they could.
The language itself is nearly extinct, but a dictionary of key words exists, which could be used to describe her game. Her forehand is like malub, lightning. Her smash is like miribi, thunder; her backhand slice like djuran, running water. And she glides lightly on the court like a mugan, a ghost. Barty has just been named Sportswoman of the Year in the National Dreamtime Awards.
“My heritage is really important to me,” she says, putting her flat white down for a moment. “I’ve always had that olive complexion and the squished nose, and I just think it’s important to do the best I can to be a good role model.” People have, after all, been watching her since childhood.
Former world number eight Alicia Molik first saw Barty when she was 10, when a friend told Molik to get down to the Glen Iris Valley Tennis Club immediately to see this girl playing in the under 12 nationals. “I’ll never forget it. I just thought, ‘Wow!'” says Molik. As Fed Cup captain, she notices the same natural flair in Barty today. “Every time I watch her in every match and every practice session Ash is able to come up with something incredible.”
By 14, she was being picked for international tours. The first was to Europe, and she was miserable. Homesick, she called her parents most nights in tears.
Barty remembers one match in Holland, reigning supreme on court yet sobbing throughout the entire contest.
“It was terrible. It was all just too much. I was younger than the other girls on tour, so I knew them but not well. I just felt lonely and strange.”
Whenever someone told her she should just come home, she resisted and stayed, compelled by her own good form. One year, her father saw his teenage daughter for only 27 days. “That was horrible for us, because we’re a really close family,
” he says. “People think what she is doing is glamorous, but it’s really tough. All she does is sit on a plane, sleep in a hotel and play tennis.”