Paris, France: Ashleigh Barty has become the first Australian woman to win the French Open since Margaret Court in 1973. Only 23 years old, Ashleigh Barty flashed back regularly during this French Open.
To her first overseas trip to Paris at age 13 a decade ago. To another long-haul journey full of uncertainty at age 20 to Eastbourne, England, where she arrived with no ranking but the realization that tennis was truly the sport for her after a sabbatical spent as a professional cricketer.
“Feels like yesterday we were there, but in the same breath, it also feels like it was a lifetime ago,” she said on Saturday, the French Open trophy shimmering by her side.
It has been quite a revival in just three years. But the key for Barty over these two unexpectedly successful weeks at Roland Garros has been her new, hard-won ability to remain focused on the present: to ignore the doubts swirling in her head, concentrate on the task and shot at hand, and let her remarkable talent flow from the baseline to the net.
She has worked with a mental coach regularly for the past year, and it has given her a new perspective under tennis duress.
“Today, I just kept telling myself, ‘I may never get this opportunity ever again, try to grab it with both hands,’ ” Barty said.
She was soon holding the trophy aloft after her 6-1, 6-3 victory against Marketa Vondrousova, an unseeded 19-year-old from the Czech Republic who was also playing in her first Grand Slam singles final.
Barty, seeded No. 8, had won only two matches in her five previous appearances at the French Open and had played comparatively little on clay.
But her victory at Roland Garros did not come out of the blue. In a time of instability at the top of women’s tennis, she reached the quarterfinals of the Australian Open in January and won the Miami Open in March. She also has led Australia to Fed Cup victories this year over strong teams from the United States and Belarus.
The platform for success was there, but she was not thinking that her first Grand Slam singles title would come at Roland Garros.
“Certainly not here, that’s for sure,” she said.
She is the first Australian woman to win the French Open since Margaret Court in 1973. She is a popular figure at home, where her all-court game, modest and plain-spoken personality, and family history have struck a chord with the younger and older sets.
Her father, Robert, is an Indigenous Australian, and Barty, who is from Queensland, has taken on an increasingly prominent role as a tennis ambassador in that community. She is following the lead of Evonne Goolagong Cawley, who also has Indigenous roots and has worked hard to promote the game.
Goolagong won the first of her seven Grand Slam singles titles at the French Open in 1971. “I spotted her name on the trophy; I’ll give her a call a little bit later on,” Barty said. “It’s amazing she’s created this path for Indigenous tennis in Australia.”
A tennis prodigy, Barty won the Wimbledon girls title at 15. She was long considered the next great Australian player, but she stepped away from tennis in late 2014 when she already was ranked in the top 50 in doubles. She was struggling with the expectations and the travel, and she decided to play professional cricket in Australia in 2015 before returning to pro tennis.
Asked on Saturday if she would be a Grand Slam champion if she had not taken a break from the sport, Barty did not hesitate.
“Absolutely not,” she said. “It’s obviously a part of my life that I needed to deal with, and I feel like it was the best decision that I made at the time, and it was an even better one to come back.”
She was still hitting tennis balls during her layoff, still teaching youngsters with her childhood coach Jim Joyce. But she needed time to realize she wanted more.
“I miss the one-on-one battle, the ebbs and flows, the emotions you get from winning and losing matches,” she said. “You can only get them when you are playing and when you put yourself out on the line and you become vulnerable and try and do things that no one thinks of.”
In May 2016, when she returned to competition with Craig Tyzzer as her coach, she no longer had a ranking and had to sign in for a spot in the qualifying tournament in Eastbourne. On Monday, she will be ranked No. 2, not far behind Naomi Osaka.
Relatively short for a modern-day women’s tennis star at 5 foot 5, she has a strong lower body that is the key to her explosive forehand and serve, giving her the leg drive to generate power and spin.
Her forehand is heavy, an advantage on clay. She can also hit her backhand with two hands or chip it crisply with one, and has excellent volleys, as her success in doubles makes clear. She won the United States Open women’s doubles title last year with CoCo Vandeweghe.
Barty and Vondrousova represent the resurgence in the women’s game of players with tactical and stylistic variety. The group includes Anastasija Sevastova; Hsieh Su-wei; Daria Kasatkina, who broke into the top 10 last year but has struggled this season; and Bianca Andreescu, an 18-year-old from Canada who won the BNP Paribas Open title in Indian Wells, Calif., in March.
But only one member of that club is a Grand Slam singles champion. Barty is the ninth different woman to win a major singles title in the last 10 Grand Slam tournaments; six were first-time winners.
Barty clearly has the game to make this championship the first of several. She should thrive on all surfaces, but what she has lacked has been the self-belief and ability to control her nerves under big-match pressure.
“Ash has always had the game, it was a matter of trusting in it and herself,” said Rennae Stubbs, a coach and former Australian doubles star. “She’s a shy person, so it was a matter of wanting the spotlight and pressure.”
Tyzzer attributes the improvement to her new maturity and to her work with Ben Crowe, an Australian mentor and performance coach who has worked with Australian Rules football teams and pro athletes in other sports.
“I’ve been in discussions for a long time with him, but Ash just wasn’t ready,” Tyzzer said. “It was Wimbledon last year that was the tipping point for both of us. The tennis was fine, but just her ability to emotionally handle some things wasn’t great.”
Barty had to stare down some of her old demons on Friday when she surrendered a 5-0 lead in the first set of her semifinal against the 17-year-old Amanda Anisimova. But Barty kept her composure, despite the churning nerves inside, to win, 6-7 (4), 6-3, 6-3.
When she and Tyzzer got back to the hotel, Barty was eager to move on, her coach said, but he broke down the match’s significance with her while communicating remotely with Crowe.
“I think 12 months ago, she wouldn’t have come back and won that match,” Tyzzer said, “so for her to be able to just find a way to win in those conditions the way she was playing and the way her opponent was playing, I think is just a credit to her and the areas she has put a lot of effort into.”
Against Vondrousova, a left-hander whom Barty had beaten twice before, she displayed little vulnerability: controlling rallies with her forehand, forcing errors with her sliced backhand and even tracking down Vondrousova’s signature backhand drop shots and hitting winners. In all, Barty won 15 of 20 points at net. Rarely in recent years has a French Open women’s champion used volleys so frequently or effectively.
They should come in just as handy in the coming weeks as she returns to grass, her favorite surface.
Watch out for her at Wimbledon.
“No, she’s a clay-court specialist now,” Tyzzer said with a grin.