For many years Ashleigh Barty was the great hope of Australian tennis, before anxiety and form took her on a different and circuitous route to sporting greatness.
In 2019 Barty’s potential was stunningly realised after a near three-year journey back through the rankings and to the top of the tennis tree by winning the French Open with a bare minimum of clay court preparation.
While Barty tested herself in 2016 Big Bash cricket and took time to renew her connections to sport and community, the focus of the Australian tennis world was forced to settle on the usual boorish antics of Nick Kyrgios and the implosion of the once heralded Bernard Tomic.
The scale of Barty’s achievement this year should not be underestimated – there’s a reason she is the first Australian to win the WTA player of the year award, while also being awarded Tennis Australia’s Newcombe Medal and Sport Australia’s ‘the Don’ as the premier Australian sportsperson.
Asked after the Newcombe Medal why she is so humble, Barty replied: “Ask Mum and Dad, I think all the values I have learned in my life are from Mum and Dad.”
The 23-year-old became the first Australian to win the Roland Garros singles title since Margaret Court in 1973, and also the first Australian woman to top the rankings since her Indigenous hero Evonne Cawley in 1976.
While her disappointing fourth round exit at Wimbledon to Alison Riske marked the end of a run of 15 victories and was followed with another fourth round loss at the US Open, Barty maintained focus and charm to reset for the run home.
She collected her biggest payday by winning the WTA Final in China and then was a key part of the Australian Federation Cup team that lost out to France in Perth.
Through all the ups and downs the diminutive Queenslander returned a sense of pride to Australian tennis, despite there being daylight between her No.1 rank and the next best Australian female player Ajla Tomljanovic at No.51.
Barty’s laid-back attitude, commitment the wider good and an ability to laugh at herself offered a sporting template that proved tennis is at its best when the individual on centre court has a wider view than just of themselves.
It’s a model that players like rising mens’ star Alex De Minaur seem to have taken on board, with the occasional Sydneysider reaching a career-high No.18 rank after his brave exploits in the US Open, where he reached the fourth round for the first time.
Later in the year there was also a return from injury for the once heralded Thanasi Kokkinakis, who seemed to offer a greater sense of perspective, joy and purpose after his travails.
Kokkinakis’ highlight was a first round win at the US Open, but the recurring shoulder injury that is blighting his career meant he had to forfeit a second round match against Nadal.
Paralympian Dylan Alcott also snared a career high when winning the Australian, French and Wimbledon wheelchair titles. His acceptance speech also had the British crowd in raptures as he acknowledged the importance of the first wheelchair title at the All England Club.
Barty, DeMineur and Alcott are likely to have to carry the flag forward for Australia in 2020, with Kyrgios continuing to show flashes of on-court brilliance laced with embarrassing and childish own goals.
For all the tantrums and unsportsmanlike conduct charges, Kyrgios still has the game to win big matches – and his ability to go head to head with the likes of world No.1 Rafael Nadal still has some fans predicting a breakthrough moment.
Ranked at No.19 – despite his loaded mouth and boycott of the clay court season – Kyrgios remains a tantalising and talented figure who cannot be entirely dismissed.
But in the champion stakes, Kyrgios is no Ash Barty.