You don’t have to be a soothsayer to predict that, in less than two weeks, Ashleigh Barty will become the first native Australian to win the singles title in her home Grand Slam since Chris O'Neil ran the table in 1978.
Everything has been breaking Barty's way since the season-ending 2019 WTA Finals. She hasn’t played in 11 months, but last week she convincingly won the Yarra Valley Classic tune-up; a walkover issued by injured Serena Williams in the semifinals didn’t hurt. Despite the long hiatus, Barty is still the No. 1-ranked player on tour, thanks largely to a temporary, COVID-drive modification of the ranking system.
The Australian Open draw gods have also smiled on Barty: Nobody in her quarter of the draw is a Grand Slam champion. The highest other seeds are No. 8 Karolina Pliskova and No. 11 Belinda Bencic. On Tuesday, she won her first-round match over the overmatched Danka Kovinic, 6-0, 6-0, in 44 minutes.
“I feel very fortunate to have had the year that I have had,” Barty told reporters after winning last week. “There was nothing but positive vibes.”
Barty has played her cards shrewdly. On the other hand, the deck has been stacked in her favor, illustrating the way the pandemic has left major potholes and bumps on the game’s supposedly level playing field. Barty exploited that condition better than anyone except perhaps her compatriot Nick Kyrgios.
Barty won the Yarra Valley Classic, a tune-up tournament for the Australian Open, in her first action since February 2020. She opened the main event with a 6-0, 6-0 rout. (Getty Images)
Both of those players had an unquestionable right to opt out of play for the past 11 months. It’s called freedom. There was no punishment for either in the workplace, either, as the tours offered everyone the option to sit out the pandemic. But the handful of players who chose to opt out also played no role in restarting a badly damaged game, or finding ways to move tennis forward, providing jobs for as many players as possible while under the siege of Covid.
The indifference was particularly striking in the case of Barty, who just months before the pandemic won the largest prize-money check ever written in tennis—$4.2 million for winning the 2019 WTA Finals. Meanwhile, Kyrgios would end up as a self-designated Covid cop, taking every opportunity to characterize efforts taken by the ATP and others to restart the game as “selfish.”
Novak Djokovic, Barty’s counterpart at the top of the ATP, went 23-5 with two Masters titles in the period that Barty and Kyrgios both went 0-0. He also masterminded the formation of a new players’ organization for both the ATP and WTA. Sure, his Adria Tour—created to raise funds for financially strapped Balkan tennis—became a disaster due to a Covid outbreak brought on by an appalling lack of health protocols. But few people doubt Djokovic’s good intentions. As Tennis Channel analyst Jim Courier said of the Adria Tour fiasco. “The intent was good, the execution was not.”
Barty’s own decision to opt out left her free to ride out the pandemic at home in Queensland where, among other things, she hobnobbed with surfers and regularly attended Australian Football League matches to cheer on the Richmond Tigers. The major challenge she faced appeared to be the travel restrictions that for most of the summer prevented her from getting together with her coach, Craig Tyzzer, and she used that—as well as previously voiced health concerns—as part of her rationale for skipping Roland Garros.
“There are two reasons for my decision,” she wrote in an Instagram post announcing that she would not compete in Europe. “The first is the health risks that still exist with COVID. The second is my preparation, which has not been ideal without my coach being able to train with me due to the state border closures in Australia."
Once again: This isn’t about Barty’s rights. It’s also understandable, if not admirable, that a player would use the system to her best advantage. But you have to wonder how the prospect of losing a whopping 2,000 ranking points would have influenced Barty’s decision to play either of the two most recent majors if the normal ranking system were in effect.
Boris Becker was among the few people who challenged players for opting out. The multiple-time Grand Slam champion has been accused of many things, but not speaking his mind has never been one of them. When six of the Top 10 women, led by Barty and No. 2 Simona Halep, decided not to compete at the US Open, Becker—while largely deferential—wrote in his Daily Mail (UK) column: “Some of them have reacted a little bit selfishly.”
The criticism struck some as out-of-line, but balance it against the actions of one player who had very little to gain from playing—someone who, theoretically, happens to be at greater risk from Covid than any typical, young tennis pro, 39-year-old mother Serena Williams. The all-time Open era Grand Slam champion was not only a vocal, upbeat cheerleader for the US Open, she entered the very first tournament sanctioned by the WTA after a long spring lockdown—a modest event in Lexington, Ky.
The players who chose to compete during the pandemic also took a calculated risk, and just in hopes of scoring a big paycheck. Players like Djokovic, Williams (Venus as well as Serena), Grigor Dimitrov, Naomi Osaka, Victoria Azarenka, Stefanos Tsitsipas, Sloane Stephens, Dominic Thiem, Alexander Zverev—they have plenty of money. But they wanted to compete, and knew they were keeping tennis alive during the pandemic.
“I don't feel comfortable putting my team and I in that position,” Barty said in July, as she withdrew from the US Open. Does anyone really believe that the opt-in players, despite some lapses in good judgement, didn’t care about their health, or that of their “teams” or families?
What the opt-in players did was help put Barty into the position she occupies at the moment. Asked to pick a favorite for the Aussie Open title, Tennis Channel and ESPN's James Blake said: “Ashleigh Barty. She had the best preparation in terms of being able to control her environment instead of having to quarantine.”
“Absolutely no regrets for me,” Barty said of her actions of 2020.
Of course not; as she said, all the vibes have been positive.
Nestled between January's summer swing of tournaments in Australia, and March's Sunshine Double in the U.S., February can be overlooked in tennis. But not in 2021, with the Australian Open's temporary move to the second and shortest month of the calendar. Beyond that, February is Black History Month, and also a pivotal time for the sport in its rebound from the pandemic.
To commemorate this convergence of events, we're spotlighting one important story per day, all month long, in The 2/21. Set your clock to it: it will drop each afternoon, at 2:21 Eastern Standard Time (U.S.).