In hindsight, walking away from tennis as a homesick 18-year-old was the wisest decision Ashleigh Barty ever made.
Except Barty felt she had no other choice following a first-round loss at the 2014 US Open in New York.
“For me, it was the only decision,” the now world No.1 reflected after crowning her triumphant season with victory at the WTA Finals in China.
“At the time, I didn’t have the clarity in my mind to think it was a smart decision.
“It was the only kind of feasible option for me to maybe have a future in the sport. I needed to take some time away. I needed to refresh, give myself a chance to really realise what I wanted in life.
“I was lucky enough to have very good people around me to kind of guide me, also allow me to make my own decisions, become more accountable.
“I feel like in that time away from tennis I did that. I matured obviously. I had a couple years where I grew as a person.
“Then when I came back into the sport, it was about me making my own decisions and being completely 100 per cent all in and accountable for all of my actions and decisions that I made.”
Never in her wildest dreams did Barty, after trading her cricket bat for a tennis racquet again, imagine winning a grand slam title or becoming world No.1.
Her parents never considered even a comeback possible.
“We never expected her to get back to tennis. Not in a million years,” Barty’s father Robert said at this month’s Newcombe Medal awards in Melbourne.
“She just decided 18 months after playing cricket that she’d go down and speak to Casey (Dellacqua) and she got on court and had a hit and she thought, ‘I really, really like this’.
“She’s done it the hard way, but she’s done it her way. We’re just really proud of her. She’s an amazing kid.”
Indeed Barty credits Dellacqua, with whom she made all four grand slam doubles finals before breaking through for singles glory in Paris in June, for being “a massive part of me coming back”.
“Knowing that I had that security of playing doubles with a best mate (was huge),” said Barty, who will carry the hopes of a nation as the first home-grown women’s top seed at the Australian Open since 1977.
“I missed the competition, I missed the one-on-one battle, the ebbs and the flows, the emotions that you get from winning and losing matches.
“You put yourself out on the line and become vulnerable and try and do things that no one thinks of.”
As her Australian Fed Cup captain Alicia Molik put it, Barty has been doing things on a tennis court that no one thinks of all her life.
“Ash was maybe only 10 or 11 at the time when I first saw her,” Molik recalled.
“It was actually a claycourt nationals event in Melbourne. A good friend of mine who was one of the coaches in Queensland and said: ‘You’ve got to come and have a look at this girl. She’s great, plays fantastic’.
“I drove down to watch the junior event out of interest. She was great. She could do everything. Maybe she didn’t have the size of the other girls within the draw, but certainly more than made up for it with the other attributes that even make her a great tennis player now.
“I remember seeing her chip, kick, slice. She seemed very developed in comparison to her peers.”
Molik has no doubts that Barty’s 18-month hiatus has been the making of the one-time Wimbledon junior champion.
“She’s really blossomed. She knows what makes her a good tennis player. She knows what she wants in tennis and off court. I think she’s just a very measured person,” Molik said.
“Ash is unique to the rest of the field because, I think, too, she has a perspective that no one else has experienced. She took a couple years out of the game. No one else has had that.
“Maybe (they’ve had) a break for injury reasons. But she’s had an experience that is very, very unique.
“That’s part of the reason why I think she’ll remain at the top for a very long time. She knows what the other side is like.
“She’s also excited about continuing to achieve. She wants to get better every day.”
Barty was unsure what the future held when she opted to make her return to tennis following her stint in the WBBL.
“That period of my life that I had away from professional tennis was really important for my development as a person more than anything, regardless of the tennis player,” she said.
“When I started hitting balls again probably in February 2016 – it feels like a long, long time ago now – but it was also when I started the journey with ‘Tyzz’ (coach Craig Tyzzer).
“For us, we wanted to try and see what we were capable of as a team.”
With wins on four surfaces – clay, grass, hard and indoors – and a record $US11.3 million ($A16.28 million) in prize money in 2019, the all-court talent has proven she’s capable of anything.
Not that Barty measures her success in titles or world rankings.
“It’s changed a lot of the outside noise but it hasn’t changed the way I live,” the 23-year-old said.
“I’m still the exact same person. I’ve just got a different number next to my name. That’s the most beautiful thing about this journey. It hasn’t changed who I am.”