“My team and I have decided that right now it is best for me to take a break from professional tennis. Obviously this has been a very difficult decision …”
-Ash Barty, September 19, 2014
It was the announcement that stunned the Australian tennis world and can now be seen as the unlikely detour towards Ash Barty becoming the world No.1.
Ipswich’s Barty had been a tennis prodigy since coming off the grass and hard courts of Brisbane, winning the 2011 Wimbledon juniors aged 15 and making three grand slam doubles finals with compatriot Casey Dellacqua.
And then, at 18, it all seemed to be over.
Burnout, homesickness and expectations from the Australian tennis world had taken a toll over five years on the world circuit.
Barty had reached No.129 in the world. But as her spirits slipped in the year following that peak, so did her ranking.
By the time she stepped away from the sport after consulting family and friends, she was a lowly No.216.
What followed was a seemingly quixotic stint in women’s cricket, with her starring moment coming on her debut in her 2015-16 stint with Brisbane Heat.
She hit hit 39 off 27 balls in a match against Melbourne Stars, but she could not maintain that form.
Her return after that detour – three years ago this month – saw her resume her career at No.623 in the rankings.
Barty said she missed tennis for “the one-on-one battle, the ebbs and flows, the emotions you get from winning and losing matches”.
Her father Robert spoke of his battle with depression and told the Courier Mail in January 2017 that his daughter’s time away had “allowed her to be a kid again”.
“She’d been playing tennis internationally since she was 13 basically,” he said.
“She just needed to get away from the spotlight and spend some time with her sisters and family in general.’’
Barty was upfront about the break.
“It was the best decision that I made at the time, and it was an even better one coming back,” she told the rolandgarros.com website after her breakthrough French Open win earlier this month.
I needed time to step away and live a normal life, because this tennis life certainly isn’t normal. I needed time to grow as a person and mature.
“It gave me a new perspective in my life and my career. It’s brought this new belief – this feeling of belonging at the very top level.”
Team Barty has also been a big part of the return, with Ash regularly using the word “we” when discussing her plans and her successes.
She’s been effusive in her praise for coach Craig Tyzzer, telling Tennismash.com website in September that Barty was constantly working to improve over the past two years.
“On a general day before a tournament starts, Ash could do anywhere from three to four hours of work to get ready,” Tyzzer said.
“It could involve any or all of these aspects – conditioning, strength training, rehabilitation, body management, physiotherapy and massage – and that is before we even step on the court.”
Barty has also credited mentor Ben Crowe with getting her mind right.
Crowe told Melbourne radio 3AW on Monday that Barty had let go of the distraction that can sabotage elite performance.
“She’s found her authenticity and has a beautiful perspective on herself away from the tennis court,” Crowe said.
“She knows that playing tennis is what she does, but it’s not who she is.
“Athletes get caught up in perfection myths, feeling like they’re not good enough, not strong enough, not fit enough.
“Ash has taken off that armour and just let herself be seen: Real, raw, imperfect, vulnerable Ash Barty.
“From that authenticity she gives herself permission to make mistakes and fall down, but get up again and learn from that.”
That attitude was on show for all to see when Barty made her first Australian Open quarter-final earlier this year, but was bundled out 6-1 6-4 at Melbourne Park by Petra Kvitova.
“I think we’ll certainly kick back with a beer tonight and be able to celebrate,” she smiling said at her post-match media conference.
This week Barty was to prepare for Wimbledon at England’s Eastbourne tournament, but she had to pull out to rest an existing arm injury. It was at Eastbourne where she began her stunning career revival three years ago and made a remarkable run to the semi-finals.
Then she had to qualify just to make the main draw, while at Wimbledon she’ll have a first-round bye and will be the No.1 seed.
“It was my first singles tournament … and I played in qualis through there, so Eastbourne has a very special place in my heart,” said Barty after her win at Birmingham on Sunday that confirmed her world No.1 ranking.
“We had a very vague plan to try and get back in obviously to the rhythm of it and to playing again. But certainly not for it to happen this quickly. It is always a goal to try and be the best.
“It’s ultimately why we train, why we compete and play, but for it to happen in this way has been amazing.
“It’s a testament to all of my team who have put so much time and invested so much passion and energy into my career and try and make me the best that I can be.”
As Barty’s old doubles partner, friend and mentor Dellacqua said of the new Barty after her 18-month sabbatical.
“She’s happy,’’ Dellacqua told tennis.com.
“Ash is a really good player. We’ve all known that, but she’s just a few years older, a lot more mature, can maybe grasp things better, so just a different Ash this time round.
“I mean, same Ash for me, just a little bit older, just in a lot better space.’’
Asked on Sunday what would change now she was world No.1, she smiled and replied: “Nothing, nothing at all”.
“I think for all of us it is an amazing place to be in, but certainly nothing changes.”