Teen talent's switch to a different ball game

Personality : Australia's Barty left a promising career in tennis to pursue cricket
Last Updated 23 January 2016, 18:33 IST

Ash Barty, one of the most talented Australian tennis players of her generation, played Serena Williams on the opening night of the Australian Open in Rod Laver Arena two years ago. Then 17, Barty had the support of the crowd, and ultimately of Williams, who offered praise after defeating her 6-2, 6-1.

"I just think she's so cute; I like her a lot," Williams said. "She's so young. I'd like to see her do really well. I think she has a game to do really well. We'll see."

But at this year's Australian Open, Barty may not be seen at all. She left professional tennis behind more than a year ago and just finished her first season here as a cricket player.

Yes, the former tennis phenom now plays professional cricket instead. Barty burst onto the international tennis stage in 2011, winning the Wimbledon junior title at age 15. The preternatural court craft and guile she showed at her young age drew quick comparisons to Martina Hingis, the last player to make a major impression in women's tennis at such an early age. As Barty transitioned to the pro tour, her successes continued to pile up.

In an era in which teenage stars are an endangered species, Barty made three Grand Slam finals in doubles in 2013, finishing as runner-up in the Australian Open, Wimbledon and the US Open with Casey Dellacqua, a player 11 years her senior.

Still younger than many players competing on the junior circuit, Barty peaked at No. 12 in the WTA doubles rankings. She would probably have been higher if not for the schedule limitations the WTA places on teenage players.

Her results and ranking tailed off in 2014, and her singles fell short of the high standard she had set in doubles. But Barty continued to post positive results. At the US Open that year, she earned a spot in the singles main draw through the qualifying draw at a major for the first time and reached the quarterfinals in mixed doubles.

That was the last tennis tournament Barty played. Citing what she calls "the general stresses of playing around the world and having the spotlight on," Barty said she wanted to press pause on the sport she had played and loved since she was 4.

"A big part of my philosophy was always that tennis is a game, and I wanted to enjoy it," Barty, 19, said. "At the end of the day, it was just a game that I wanted to have fun in, enjoy, and for me it turned into a little bit of a slog, and I wasn't enjoying it quite as much as I would have liked. So I thought it was the right time for me to step away. Not that it would, but just in case it drove me away from tennis completely."

Causing ripples

Within weeks, news that Barty was stalling her tennis career had rippled quickly through Australian tennis circles, from which she had been given substantial assistance in her development in the form of coaching, financial support and wild cards by Tennis Australia.
"I think anybody in their right mind would have been surprised by that because of the success that she was having and what she was achieving in the tennis world," Rennae Stubbs, an Australian six-time major champion, said.

For those closer to Barty, signs were apparent that she was enjoying the sport less and less.

"Maybe she was a victim of her own success, to a degree," her coach, Jason Stoltenberg, said.

Affable but reserved, Barty rejects the permanence of verbs like "quitting" and "retiring" to describe her tennis status.

"I didn't put a time length on it, never said that I was done completely," Barty said. "I think it got blown up a little bit in the beginning, and that may have forced me to step back a little bit more and take a bit more time.

"I'm still leaving all options open, like I've always said. Just going by how I feel in my gut at the moment."

Barty said that she had taken similar sabbaticals before, though they never extended for more than half a month.

"It's no different from going on vacation for two weeks -- it just happened to be 16 or 18 months this time," she said. "It's been no different. It was just time for me to refresh."

In July, nearly a year into her absence from competition, Barty was introduced to a new sphere of sports. A trainer she knew through tennis was working with the Southern Stars, Australia's national women's cricket team, and invited Barty to speak at a team dinner about how to prepare for long travel periods, like the two-month tour the team was about to take through Europe.

Seeing her jell with the women on the team, a coach invited Barty to a training session, she said, so she could "go out and have a hit, give it a crack, why not?"

Barty had watched cricket and taken makeshift batting practice with a tennis ball and racket in her backyard growing up, but she had never stepped in front of a wicket or even held a real cricket ball. Still, with her excellent hand-eye coordination, she managed to impress.

The Brisbane Heat eventually invited her to play professionally in the inaugural season of the Women's Big Bash League. Although many facets of the sports differ -- Barty's nondominant left hand needs to play a larger role with a cricket bat than it did with a tennis racket -- much of her athleticism has proved universal.

Barty, who had earned more than $900,000 in prize money in her few years on the tennis tour, was now playing in a league in which the maximum salary for a player is about $6,800.

Grace Harris, a cricket teammate who works full time in a hospital, said she saw Barty as pursuing a higher calling, if a substantially lower paycheque.

"Tennis, obviously, was not quite doing it for her at the time," Harris said of Barty, with whom she briefly overlapped in junior tennis. "It was simply paying bills, and we're searching for something that makes us feel better about what we stand for and what we're doing with our lives. For her to walk away, it shows money is just a figure. It doesn't mean much."

(Published 23 January 2016, 16:41 IST)

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