As Ash Barty prepares for Saturday night’s Wimbledon centre court debut as world No.1 Australia’s new superstar has recalled the extraordinary “gamble” that reignited her tennis career.
Barty takes on British wildcard Harriet Dart in a bid to make the round of 16 having not dropped a set in nine matches since the French Open semi-finals.
But while she may be on a dream run, Barty was anything but in top flight when she lobbed at a low-level $50,000 event unranked and desperate for a match three years ago.
Officials records list Barty as the world No.9999 when she arrived at Eastbourne in 2016 literally hoping to make up the numbers.
“Yeah, the draw wasn’t full. It was a little bit of a gamble on our part to go there,” Barty said ahead of her third-round Wimbledon match.
“We looked at the previous few years and saw sometimes the ‘qually’ (qualifying) draws there were not full. It was a nice tournament for us to target.
“I was still a full member of the WTA at the time. That was kind of how I was elevated to the top of the list when there were spaces available.
“So still being a full member from when I was playing doubles a couple years back helped me to get into my first singles tournament back.”
Incredibly, having not played competitively since dramatically walking away from the sport, homesick and disillusioned, 21 months earlier, Barty won her opening qualifying match.
The former Wimbledon junior champion then won her second match, and a third to make the main draw.
Three main-draw wins later and Barty departed the resort town on England’s south-east coast as world No.623.
The Australian’s second career was up and running.
It almost wasn’t, though, with Barty admitting there was no real Plan B had she not been thrown in the grasscourt draw in Eastbourne.
“It was hang there for a week and try again the next week,” she said of her tenuous back-up plan.
“There was another 50 (thousand-dollar tournament) we were looking at. Then again, the stars aligned for us; we got into the WTA in Nottingham.
It was just a whirlwind kind of month that we had. It was a massive month, an awesome month.
“Luck kind of went our way a little bit. We were able to get into draws and get our feet wet again.”
With another run from qualifying to the quarter-finals the following week in Nottingham, Barty slashed her ranking almost in half to No.335 before falling in the second round of Wimbledon qualifying.
It was almost three years to the day after her comeback that Barty became Australia’s first women’s world No.1 since Evonne Goolagong Cawley in 1976.
Bernard Tomic and Nick Kyrgios have repeatedly been encouraged to take a similar break from tennis – but Barty is too classy to offer such advice to her troubled countrymen.
“As I say time and time again, everyone has their own unique journey, their own path they pave. It’s impossible for me to give advice to anyone,” the 23-year-old said.
“What I’ve done in my career and my team have worked for us. There have been some tough times, that’s for sure.
“There have been some incredible moments. I think I learned a lot better over the past few years to really appreciate the position I’m in, enjoy it every single day.
“At the end of the day, it’s only a tennis match. If you win, great. If you don’t, it’s not the end of the world.
“I still have amazing people around me. We enjoy each other’s company every single day and try to do the best we can every day.”
Barty is refusing to take her 182nd-ranked opponent lightly as she looks to enter Wimbledon’s second week for the first time.
“There’s an element of danger against everyone you play,” Barty said.
“You have to make sure you know exactly how you want to play the match.
“I haven’t played with her before, haven’t hit with her. Obviously a little bit new for both of us.
“I’ll make sure that we’re prepared as best we can, we have a game plan, try to go out there and execute.”
Shunted to Court 2 for her second-round match after launching her title quest on Court 1, Barty will be appearing on Centre Court for the first time since she was 17 and partnering fellow Australian Casey Dellacqua in the 2014 women’s doubles final.
A fan favourite wherever she plays, the top seed isn’t concerned about facing one of Britain’s last hopes in front of her home crowd.
“I wouldn’t be playing a British crowd; I’m playing against Harriet,” Barty said.
“Yes, she’ll get more support being in Britain, as I would if we were in Australia. It’s no different.”
Victory for Barty would put her into a last-16 clash with either Swiss 13th seed Belinda Bencic or American Alison Riske on Monday.
“I mean, I don’t need to worry about that for at least another couple of games if she closes it out. We’ll worry about it then.”
John Millman, the last Australian survivor in the men’s draw, plays American Sam Querrey in the third round in the first match on Court 12.
Australian singles matches at Wimbledon on Saturday:
Ashleigh Barty v Harriet Dart (GBR), 10pm AEST
John Millman v Sam Querrey (USA), 8pm AEST
Latest women’s results:
S. Halep def. V. Azarenka 6-3, 6-1
S. Zhang def. C. Wozniacki 6-4, 6-2
E Svitolina def. M. Sakkari 6-3, 6-7 (1-7), 6-2
C Gauff def. P. Hercog 6-3, 6-7 (7-9), 5-7
KA Pliskova def. SW Hsieh 6-2, 2-6, 6-4
K Muchova def. A Kontaveit 7-6 (9-7), 6-3
D Yastremska def. V Golubic 7-5, 6-3
P Martic def. D Collins 6-4, 3-6, 6-4
Latest men’s results:
F Verdasco def. T Fabbiano 6-4, 7-6 (7-1), 6-4
G Pella def. K Anderson 6-4, 6-3, 7-6 (7-4)
N Djokovic def. H Herkacz 7-5, 6-7 (5-7), 6-1, 6-4
R Bautista Agut def. K Khachanov 6-3, 7-6 (7-3), 6-1
D Goffin def. D Medvedev 4-6, 6-2, 3-6, 6-3, 7-5
M Raonic def. R Opelka 7-6 (7-1), 6-2, 6-1
B Paire def. J Vesely 5-7, 7-6 (7-5), 6-3, 7-6 (7-2)