Sport Linda Pearce: To beer or not to beer, Team Barty keeps playing to its strengths

Linda Pearce: To beer or not to beer, Team Barty keeps playing to its strengths

Coach Craig Tyzzer calls the shots at a practice session with Ash Barty on January 29. Photo: AAP
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In 2017, the first full year Craig Tyzzer spent on tour with Ash Barty, coach and athlete set their sights on a top-100 finish from a starting point of 271st and ended up at No.17.

The celebration at the end of a brilliant season was a quiet beer in the hotel bar at Zhuhai, China, shared with a small group including Barty’s great friend and doubles partner Casey Dellacqua.

A very low-key version of the Barty Party was just how the Queenslander likes it. And cheers to that.

Two years later, the 22-year-old would finish as world No.1 and reigning French Open champion, toasted at every black-tie sports awards function across the land.

Through the remarkable story of Barty 2.0, and her blossoming after an extended break from the game, Tyzzer, an unassuming father of four from Melbourne’s eastern suburbs, has been a constant and key member of a settled, close-knit team.

Her original coach, Jim Joyce, who supported the appointment, remains a mentor.

Barty’s first tennis coach, Jim Joyce, in Brisbane in June 2019. Photo: AAP

“(Tyzzer) knows the right buttons to push. He hasn’t tried to go in and rip and change a lot of things, like a lot of these coaches would try to do,” Joyce said at the end of that breakout 2017.

“He’s seen what her strengths are, but he’s mainly got her to believe in her own ability.”

Given the prodigious talent of the champion junior, that was never in question.

As the Australian Open’s top seed, absolutely nobody doubts it now. And the support team Barty calls “my family” will be among the intimate few on a near-empty Rod Laver Arena on Wednesday when top-seeded Barty plays Czech 25th seed Karolina Muchova for a place in her second consecutive Australian Open semi-final.

“They’re with me so many days of the year, so many weeks of the year, and we go through the highs together, we go through the lows together, and we go through all the hard work in between,” Barty said after Monday night’s 6-3 6-4 defeat of unseeded Shelby Rogers.

“I’m so appreciative of them, that they’ve sacrificed so much time and energy to put it into my career, and to chase our goals and to chase our dreams and I think most of all is we have fun doing it. There’s a lotta laughter. There’s a lotta love.”

It was Tyzzer’s turn to speak on Tuesday, with coaches now brought into the interview room by the WTA at the latter stages of big events.

Barty presents Tyzzer with the WTA Coach of the Year award in Adelaide in January 2020. Photo: AAP

He had just overseen a practice session in Melbourne’s humid afternoon heat, where, with Barty’s golf-pro boyfriend Gary Kissick and strength and conditioning coach Mark Taylor as ball boys, it was a mix of all business and relaxed rapport.

“She’s easy to coach,” says Tyzzer, whose only minor quibble in 2017 was that his charge could be too much of a perfectionist and thus judge herself too harshly at times.

“She works on the things we discuss. It’s never just me telling her what to do. Ash has such a good tennis IQ, it’s working things through, working out ways to get around.

“I feel like it’s a really good coach/player relationship. We enjoy our whole group, the way we go about it. We don’t want to make it a chore. We actually want to enjoy what we do.

“We really do enjoy what we’re doing. Yeah, I feel like it works pretty well.”

Having first worked briefly with Barty while filling in for Jason Stoltenberg in 2014, Tyzzer – understandably – has liked what he has seen so far. Particularly so in a competitive sense, having been unsure what to expect after Barty sat out most of a year she spent hitting almost as many golf balls as the tennis kind, and watching footy with an occasional ale in hand.

“I guess it’s (been) a bit unknown for everyone,” he said.

“But to be where we’re at is fantastic, to keep playing in a grand slam, it’s always difficult to win matches. You’ve got to be there on the day, win seven matches to get there.

“She knows how tough it is to do. She’s done it once before. I know if she goes out and does her best, her best is often good enough.”

Barty has won all eight matches since resuming in the Open’s lead-up week, and is yet to drop a set.

When Queensland’s borders were closed to Victorians last winter, Tyzzer had to coach remotely, before two weeks of quarantine in Darwin en route to Brisbane in October to take charge of an extended pre-season.

Barty has made a string switch from synthetic to natural gut, which took substantial adjustment, but was designed to add some extra power to her serve and groundstrokes, with the added benefit of softening the impact on her right arm.

Her friend Dellacqua, now a Nine commentator, confirms the suspicion that the unusually quiet environment will not bother unflashy Ash at all.

Barty is no Nick Kyrgios; preferring an understated, less flamboyant approach. She will have at least one more crowd-free outing, and Tyzzer says she is fine either way.

Should she make the final, a potential opponent, Naomi Osaka, believes Barty would deserve to have a live audience for such a long-overdue occasion, having noticed for several years how badly Australians want the 24-year-old to succeed.

“Even for me, I’ve played the (US Open) finals before with no crowd. It’s definitely memorable,” Osaka said.

“But I’m sure for her, if she reaches the finals and there’s no crowd, it would be memorable but kind of in a sad way. I’m sure she would want a crowd. For me, I would want a crowd, too, even if they don’t cheer for me. That’s just the way life is. It’s just more fun.

“I wouldn’t be surprised if she gets to the final. I don’t think anyone would be. For me, she’s the No.1 player in the world, so it would be weird if I don’t see her as, like, a rival or a threat.”

Yet Muchova has also had an exceptional tournament, equalling her best grand slam result.

Karolina Muchova has equalled her best grand slam result by advancing to the quarter-final. Photo: AAP

Barty first saw the Czech in their third-round match at the 2018 US Open (which Barty won 6-3 6-4), played on a distant outside court at Flushing Meadows, and describes her as a “brilliant, brilliant player, an absolute competitor, and I think she’s got the whole package, the whole game”.

Tyzzer was on scouting duty a round earlier when the qualifier, then ranked 202nd, upset major winner Garbine Muguruza.

“I couldn’t believe how good an athlete this girl was,” he said. “Like a year older than Ash. Where has she been? I realised then she had a lot of injuries.

“She’s super-talented, she’s a great athlete, she’s got all the shots, attacking player, likes to come forward. I actually like the way she plays tennis. I know Ash is looking forward to it.”

Still, whatever happens for the rest of this tournament, and how happily – or not – Australia’s 43-year wait for a women’s champion ends, Tyzzer considers this Open run ideal preparation for what is still an uncertain year ahead.

At this stage, Team Barty plans to head to the Middle East and Miami next, then, due to quarantine requirements should they try to return, set up a base for an extended period in Europe.

“We’ll be away for a while if we go.”

While there is still much work to be done at home, there is also navigable passage through.

After Muchova would come either 22nd seed Jennifer Brady or 61st-ranked Jessica Pegula in the semis, with Osaka or Serena Williams awaiting in Saturday night’s title match.

What an occasion that would be, as if this tournament has not already been extraordinary enough.

How Barty and her trusted coach would celebrate, well, that’s the easy part. This is Victoria. There’s a song about it. Long may they get on the beers.

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