It was a volcanic year in women’s tennis, with the tour spewing out new, red-hot stars and unpredictable results that stunned fans all year. When the smoke finally cleared, though, the landscape was dominated by Ash—Ashleigh Barty that is, our WTA Player of the Year.

Barty, a former prodigy from Australia, left the tour for an extended period at age 18 when incessant travel and the demands of the pro life, became too onerous. But here she is, at age 25, a sensational, still-evolving comeback story. Barty finished 2021 atop the rankings for a third consecutive year, joining an elite club alongside an iconic quartet: Chris Evert, Martina Navratilova, Steffi Graf and Serena Williams.

Compact at 5'5" but solidly built, nimble on her feet, and blessed with great hands and a shrewd tennis mind, Barty won a tour-best five titles this year, including her first Wimbledon and three WTA 1000s at Miami and Madrid, Cincinnati. She also compiled a sterling 14-1 record against the WTA Top 20.


INTERVIEW: After winning Wimbledon, Ash Barty spoke with Tennis Channel's Jon Wertheim


In a year when tennis was busy recovering from the pandemic, Barty also stands out as a player for whom the coronavirus crisis proved to be a mixed blessing. She hunkered down at home in Queensland for most of 2020, and when she emerged in 2021, her homeland’s stringent quarantine rules for returning travelers forced her to stay on the road from mid-March until she ended her season shortly after the US Open.

Australian officials then rejected her application to quarantine at home (rather than in a hotel) upon her return—even though Barty had tested negative for COVID-19 at least 68 times during her travels.

The upside, if that’s the right word, is that both tours modified their ranking systems due to the pandemic in a way that enabled players like Barty who could not—or would not—compete to more or less retain their pre-pandemic rankings. As a result, Naomi Osaka was unable to wrest the No. 1 ranking from Barty, even though Osaka won two consecutive Grand Slam titles in the interim when Barty won none. The special rankings adjustments certainly aided Barty.

When Barty finally left home to compete at the Miami 1000 Masters, she was aware of the whispers. She told Australian website CODE Sports, “I felt people were questioning whether I was the rightful No. 1, given Naomi Osaka had won a couple of Grand Slams in succession. It was probably the first time I felt a little rattled, and I really wanted to make a statement on the court.”

Barty won the first three-set ladies' final at the All England Club in nine years.

Barty won the first three-set ladies' final at the All England Club in nine years.


When Barty finally hit the court, the message almost got lost in translation. She found herself down match point against qualifier Kristina Kucova in her very first match in Miami, but still found a way to win. Barty then sliced her way through a quality set of opponents to claim the title. She was soon rolling, although a hip injury forced her to retire in the second round of Roland Garros.

Barty’s year came to a satisfying climax at Wimbledon, where she won the title for the first time on the 50th anniversary of fellow Australian Evonne Goolagong’s breakthrough at the All England Club. By this point, Barty was road weary, running on fumes following an uninterrupted five months on the road. Still, she resolved to do everything in her power to keep the No. 1 ranking. Despite losing her Olympic opener in Tokyo, a win in Cincinnati sealed that deal. With a safe lead in the rankings race, Barty lost in the third round of the US Open.

That would be it for Barty in 2021, due largely to Australia's quarantine rule. She decided against defending her title at the WTA Finals, even though she was the defending champion. Last played in Shenzhen in 2019, the tour's season-ending championship awarded tennis' largest prize ever—$4.42 million USD—when Barty won that title.

At Wimbledon, Barty wore a tribute dress evocative of the famous scalloped white garment Goolagong had worn when she first won Wimbledon. The Aussies, who are friends, also share the bond of indigenous roots. Asked about Goolagong on court after she won, Barty swallowed back tears and said, "I hope I made Evonne proud."

She did, making legions of her compatriots and fans proud as well with the year she put together under challenging circumstances.