Mature Barty no longer shrinking from the spotlight

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By winning the final set of the live fifth doubles rubber, the hosts had just qualified for their first final in 26 years, as Barty became the first player to win all six points in consecutive ties to deliver Australia its November hosting duties against France.

Barty has now logged 14 consecutive Fed Cup victories. Last month, she won her biggest career title, the Miami Open. January brought her maiden grand slam quarter-final, at the Australian Open. She is the only player in the world to be ranked inside the top 10 in both singles and doubles. And she does not turn 23 until tomorrow.

In the context of all that, Molik – herself a former world No.8 and Olympic bronze medallist – was asked where she thinks her Ipswich-born spearhead will be (other than at a venue to be decided) when she next wears the national colours. It was a question which prompted, amid some amusement, the ever-understated Barty to pretend she did not want to hear.

Undaunted, Molik spoke of Barty’s greater maturity, her ability to deal with setbacks and adversity, and to handle pressure situations and big occasions like a more seasoned veteran.Advertisement

“Gosh, I can’t remember enjoying that til I was in my late 20s – you’ve got someone in her early 20s who really enjoys showing what they can do in front of a crowd, and that’s when your best tennis comes out,’’ said Molik. “What I do have to say, too, is physically Ash can more than match it with everyone; being out on the court for three hours, four hours, is not a problem. So I think what’s exciting is that opens up opportunities on various surfaces.’’

The next is clay, and Barty will leave later this week for her first French Open lead-up event, the Madrid Open. If grass and hardcourt rank as her favourite surfaces, she has not just the rare mix of power, touch and variety that allows her to succeed on anything but, rightly, the belief now that she can beat anyone, any day.

Yet, personally, she remains unchanged in the ways that matter, and unaffected by her growing bank balance or fame. “I’m pretty low-key up here,’’ she told Guardian Australia in Brisbane. “I think first and foremost it’s me coming back to my family, and certainly nothing’s changed with them. If anything, they bring me down to earth quicker and quicker every time, so that’s one of the best things.’’

If she no longer shrinks from the spotlight, then the team environment is one in which she truly thrives. As the last and highest-ranked of the Australian players to be introduced at the official Fed Cup dinner at GOMA on Thursday, Barty made her good-natured impatience with the individual attention obvious. As MC Todd Woodbridge listed her recent achievements, Barty’s body language was ‘yeah, yeah, enough of all that – just let me get over and join my mates’.

Never has she seemed more relaxed. Hallway cameras showing her warm-up before Sunday’s high-stakes doubles revealed not just her trusty yellow Sherrin but easy smiles and laughter. Earlier, she had walked on for her singles against Belarus No.1 and world No.10 Aryna Sabalenka with her three-year-old niece Lucy, like it was just any other Sunday chilling out in her Queensland backyard.

It helps, no doubt, how dramatically Barty has risen since her 2016 return from that well-publicised sabbatical, and how far she has come with a classy all-court game and backhand slice that warms the heart of her friend and mentor, the great Evonne Goolagong Cawley.

“It’s such a pleasure to watch Ash play. She’s got so many skills, has improved out of sight,” Goolagong Cawley said at the weekend. “I think she’s quite capable of winning a grand slam, the way she’s playing. She’s got so much more confidence now than I’ve ever seen her and she seems to be really enjoying it out there and it’s such a pleasure to see someone with that many skills come back into the game. I mean, I don’t watch much tennis these days, but I do watch Federer because of his skills and everything, and now Ash.’’

The next chance will be in Europe, where three of Barty’s four clay court losses last year were tight three-setters against Caroline Wozniacki, Maria Sharapova and – at Roland Garros – Serena Williams, and she believes she played an improved standard of tennis that went largely unrewarded. This year, the idea is to build on that experience and push deeper into events, Barty said, before quipping: “But, if I don’t and it’s a terrible month of tennis, I know I’ve always got the grass around the corner.’’

Young teammate Priscilla Hon was quick to offer reassurance – not that, in Barty’s current form, too much is required. “Certainly I know that it’s an opportunity for me to go and learn more about the surface, to go out there and trust my game, back myself in, and to really go and have a crack,’’ said the reigning US Open doubles champion.

“I’ve been in tough situations more times, have been more exposed in different situations. I’m another year older, I’ve learnt more about myself, and my game, and a goal of mine is to continue to develop my game to make it complete. So I think we’re closer to that and really looking forward to a good clay court season.’’

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