Sport Tennis Ash Barty spearheads bid to get Australia into our first Fed Cup final in 25 years
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Ash Barty spearheads bid to get Australia into our first Fed Cup final in 25 years

ash barty fed cup
Ashleigh Barty he become just the ninth local woman to make the world top 10. Photo: Getty
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With few remaining vacancies on a heaving bandwagon, it’s all aboard the Barty Bus.

Truly. A real one. This weekend, all roads – well, at least the main one – from the world No. 9’s home south-west of Brisbane lead to the Australia-Belarus Fed Cup semi-final almost 40 kilometres away.

Even Barty was slightly bemused by the concept, initially.

“Yeah, I saw it and I was like ‘what is going on?’” she laughs of the free, specially decorated, charter service that will ferry ticket-holders from Ipswich to Pat Rafter Arena. “But, no, very cool. Any way that we can get more people into the stands here is awesome.’’

Barty is one of three Queenslanders representing the seven-time champions as Australia attempts to qualify for its first Fed Cup final since 1993.

And what the patriotic 22-year-old considers a professional privilege will be mixed with the personal pleasure of playing in front of her close-knit inner circle.

“It’s certainly nice to be home, and to put on the green and gold,’’ Barty says. “Only a couple of times a year do we get to represent Australia, and it’s particularly special when it is at home. For me in particular, I can have my friends and family, my niece and nephew, Mum and Dad, all of those that I love can come and watch not only me but support Team Australia, as well.’’

While as understated as ever, Barty is clearly the headline local act against a Belarusian team containing formidable 10th-ranked Aryna Sabalenka and dual Australian Open winner Victoria Azarenka. She won the biggest title of her career, the Miami Masters, last month to break into the top 10 for the first time, building on her maiden grand slam quarter-final appearance at this year’s Australian Open.

FEd Cup Belarus v Australia
Aryna Sabalenka (L) and dual Australian Open winner Victoria Azarenka form a formidable Belarus team. Photo: AAP

Barty’s sublime slice, volleys and variety are backed by a powerful serve and forehand, leaving the top five a seemingly inevitable destination. For now, though, there is immense satisfaction in seeing a single digit next to her name on the WTA rankings list.

As the first Australian to hold that status since former US Open champion Sam Stosur vacated the upper echelon in 2013, Barty is just the ninth local woman – after Margaret Court, Evonne Goolagong-Cawley, Kerry Reid, Dianne Balestrat, Wendy Turnbull, Jelena Dokic, Alicia Molik and Stosur – to feature in the top 10 since the WTA rankings were introduced in 1975.

“Oh, it’s very cool. It really is cool,’’ she smiles. “It’s obviously been a goal of mine for a long time, and to have it there it’s pretty neat. But we’re certainly not satisfied: the lower it is, the better it is.’’

Miami, Barty said, was “phenomenal”, both for her ability to recover from “a bit of a heartbreaker” at Indian Wells against Elina Svitolina the previous week, and also manage a foot injury while playing some of the best and most consistent tennis of her blossoming career.

“I had some issues with my foot for the whole two weeks in Miami and we were umming and aahing [about] whether we’d be able to jump on and play properly, and well enough, but we got through it in the end, and it was an amazing fortnight,’’ she says.

“I’m giving myself more opportunities against these better girls, and when you’re playing against top five, top 10 girls, it means most of the time you’re at the business end of the tournament, where the best are playing against the best.’’

Barty is already among them, in both forms of the game, while continuing to represent her country with a distinction she hopes will extend to next year’s Tokyo Olympics. She has won her past 11 Fed Cup singles and doubles matches, including all three rubbers against the US  in February, and the grasscourt-lover is a genuine contender for what would be a maiden major singles title at Wimbledon in July.

How long ago Barty’s previous tie at the Queensland Tennis Centre – a 3-1 semi-final drubbing from Germany in 2014 – now seems. On that Easter weekend, the higher-ranked Stosur and Casey Dellacqua shared singles duties, while the latter partnered the 17-year-old prodigy in doubles to claim Australia’s only point.

Later than year, Barty was gone from the sport, amid fears she would never return. But a career-saving sabbatical that included a cricket detour to the WWBL ended in early 2016, and the proud indigenous role model has taken the express lane on her quite remarkable journey back.

Indeed, just like its namesake, the Barty Bus is also taking the direct route. And, for all the right reasons, the bandwagon is nearing capacity, too.

The Fed Cup starts at 1pm, Saturday, April 20

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