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The Tao of Ash Barty
Ashleigh Barty is No. 1 in the world, and at 25 years old, her game should only continue to improve. More important, her buoyantly sensible attitude toward work and life should continue to be an influence on young fans and fellow players.
Published Jan 17, 2022
Editor's Note—On Saturday, Ash Barty won her third career Grand Slam singles title, and in the process, ended a 44-year drought of Australian singles champions at the Australian Open.
Below, our cover story from the Jan/Feb 2022 issue of Tennis Magazine:
If you’re an American tennis fan who wants to better understand the world’s top-ranked women’s player, you might start by compiling a glossary. It would include terms and definitions such as:
- Chockers: When a stadium is packed (as in chock-full)
- Stick fat: Persist; stick it out; don’t cave to the pressure
- Bundle up like a bunch of spuds: Opposite of stick fat
- Tacker: A young person who tacks onto someone older; a wanna-be
- Flushing it: Hitting the ball well, flush on the strings
- Eat all of our Brussels sprouts: Prepare well for a new season
- Prickly pear: A set or match that’s trickier than anticipated
- Arvo off: An afternoon away from the court
- Take the pepper out of a match: Build an early lead
- Bloody Ripper: Something, or someone, awesome
“I think if anyone wants to get some Aussie slang,” Ashleigh Barty says, “all they have to do is walk past me, really.”
It isn’t just her lingo that marks the 25-year-old Queensland native as “a true blue Aussie as true as they can come,” as she calls herself. You can hear it in her reflexive modesty. Barty isn’t in danger of turning into a “tall poppy”—as they call showboat types Down Under.
“Australians have such a rich history in [this] sport, and I think being able to be a very, very small part of that is something I always dreamt of,” Barty said last summer—after becoming the first Aussie in 19 years to win Wimbledon.
You can see it in her smooth underspin backhand, her ease in every part of the court, her love of doubles, and her team spirit. Barty always says “we,” referring to herself and her coaching team, when she talks about her accomplishments. Like the Aussie legends of old, Barty’s game is practical but not one-dimensional, textbook but not workmanlike. She has every shot—flat serve, kick serve, slice backhand, crisp volleys, deft drop shots—but never does more than what’s needed to win a point.
Australians have such a rich history in [this] sport, and I think being able to be a very, very small part of that is something I always dreamt of... Ashleigh Barty
Barty has even developed an extra weapon: She’s the rare player who complements her one-handed slice with a twohanded drive, and makes them both look natural. During the pandemic, Barty says that playing in empty arenas allowed her to “listen to the spin” that her opponents put on the ball. Every pro has great hand-eye coordination; Barty, apparently, has great ear-hand coordination as well.
“My first coach was very old-fashioned, and I wanted to learn all the shots,” Barty told journalist Matthias Stache. “I wanted to be able to hit all different areas of the court and almost feel like I had the complete game.”
You can see Barty’s Aussie roots in her playing style; according to her, you can also see them in the shape of her nose. Her father, Rob, is a descendant of the Ngarigo Aboriginal tribe.
“As soon as she popped out,” Rob told WTAtennis.com, “we thought, ‘Oh wow, we’ve got a throwback to my Indigenous heritage.’”
“I’ve got the olive skin,” Barty said, “but it’s probably more the nose, the squishy little Indigenous nose.”
Barty serves as the National Indigenous Tennis Ambassador for Australia, and has formed a friendship with Evonne Goolagong, a fellow Grand Slam champion from the Wiradjuri tribe. Barty hosts clinics and visits Indigenous areas of Australia when she’s home.
“She’s admired and embraced here by almost everyone,” says Courtney Walsh, a Melbourne-based writer. “You’d be hard-pressed to find anyone with a disagreeable word to say about her, either in public or privately. She’s the face of Vegemite—the company even made ‘Bartymite’ for a time.”
For Australian fans, Barty has been a welcome relief from the crudities and disappointments of male players like Nick Kyrgios and Bernard Tomic.
“Aussie fans were yearning for someone who got on with the job,” Walsh says.
As much as Aussies love an athlete, they also love a fan. Preferably with a cold one in hand. Barty, a diehard backer of the footy—Australian rules football—club Richmond, happily obliges in that department, too.
“Footage of her sitting in the stands, drinking beers, and celebrating Richmond goals adds to the feeling that she’s an ordinary Australian,” Walsh says.
Barty has brought titles from Roland Garros and Wimbledon back home, but she has yet to have the same success at the Aussie Open. She’ll make her ninth try in January. In 2020, she was upset by Sofia Kenin in the semifinals. Last year, she won the first set of her quarterfinal with Karolina Muchova, 6–1, before collapsing after Muchova took an injury timeout.
Many have attributed these defeats, and Barty’s inability to summon her best, to nerves. She’s adamant that the expectations Down Under don’t get to her.
“There’s no extra pressure on me, that’s for sure,” she told press after clinching the 2021 Yarra Valley Classic title in Melbourne. “It’s the same whether it’s a Grand Slam or a first level of a tour event, any other match. I think the extra pressure and the extra chatter comes from you guys.
“I love playing in Australia. I feel like if there’s a tournament here, I grab it with both hands and try to do the best that I can.”
If you heard another player make that case, you might have doubts as to its veracity. Surely Barty feels something extra when she plays in front of her fellow Aussies. But she also has a different perspective on her sport than most athletes do, one that was instilled by her parents and that old-fashioned first coach she mentioned, Jim Joyce.
She’s Federeresque. Players can’t even be mad when they lose to her because they like her so much. That’s a tough juggle when you’re number one. Courtney Nguyen
Barty has said her first memory is of tennis. At 4, she picked up a broken-stringed racquet and started hitting ball after ball against a wall at home. Her passion led her parents, Rob and Josie—neither of whom played the game—to take her to see Joyce. Normally he didn’t work with anyone under 7, but he agreed to toss a few to the pint-sized Ash.
“He took a flat ball,” Rob Barty told Voyager Tennis, “and he rolled it to the side of the court to get it out of the box, and Ash chased it to try to hit it. [Joyce] called her up to the net and said, ‘Darling, you can come back next week.’”
Joyce says that in four decades of coaching he had never seen a player with Barty’s hand-eye coordination, or anyone more keen to play. Just 10 years after that first lesson, Barty won junior Wimbledon as a 15-year-old. Yet Joyce didn’t focus her primarily on winning. Instead, he gave Barty four priorities for her tennis game: To be a good person; to show respect; to have fun; and to be happy. Barty internalized all of them.
In 2014, when she found that she wasn’t happy on tour, she didn’t hesitate to hang up her racquet and pick up a cricket bat. As Barty says, the break let her “be a normal chick” for a while, and return with renewed enthusiasm two years later.
Barty also didn’t hesitate to pull the plug on her 2021 season, and skip the WTA Finals, where she was the defending champion. Because of COVID-19 travel protocols in Australia, she had been on the road from February through September. The effort paid off with five titles on three surfaces, and a third straight year-end No. 1 ranking.
It also left her ready to decompress at home. Family—her mother and father, and two sisters, Ali and Sara—is paramount for Barty. But she does what she can to make the road less lonely. Some players say they don’t care about making friends on tour. Barty isn’t one of them. Others gravitate exclusively toward their compatriots as companions. That’s not Barty’s style, either. She has used doubles as a way to foster a sense of cross-border camaraderie.
Barty is a longtime friend and doubles partner of Germany’s Julia Goerges. “You’ve been there for me since I was a little tacker running around, annoying everyone,” she told Goerges after they played a singles final in 2019.
She keeps up with Petra Kvitova and Simona Halep, is close to Victoria Azarenka, and has been tight with CoCo Vandeweghe. She and Vandeweghe won the US Open doubles title in 2018.
Last year in Australia, Barty spent quality Last year in Australia, Barty spent quality time with another American doubles partner of hers, Jennifer Brady.
“She’s such a brilliant person off the court, and then on the court she’s a superstar,” Barty said about Brady.
“She’s always encouraging to everybody around her,” Shelby Rogers says of Barty. “She brings up the energy wherever she goes. I can’t say how much respect I have for her and what a great representative she is for women’s tennis.”
“I think what makes Ash unique is how approachable she is to her fellow players, while also being so respected in the locker room for what she can do on court,” says Courtney Nguyen, who writes the WTA Insider column for the tour’s website. “She’s Federeresque in that way. Players can’t even be mad when they lose to her because they like her so much. That’s a tough juggle when you’re number one.”
Barty turns 26 in April and would seem to be entering her prime; her game should only get better. If she eats her Brussels sprouts and doesn’t bundle up like a bunch of spuds, she could be the first Australian, man or woman, to win a Grand Slam singles title at home since 1978.
Just as important, Barty’s attitude toward her work andlife should continue to influence those around her. At a time when the mental health of athletes and young people is more precarious than ever, Barty offers a roadmap not only for how to play the game well on court, but how to treat yourself well off it.