Ash Barty is fortunate to have been born into the age of rich grand slam prize money parity, when her home slam, played at a world’s-best facility, is considered an equal among siblings.
The fact that none of that could have been said the last time a local was the top Australian Open women’s seed illustrates just how long ago it was. The year was 1977, the PM Malcolm Fraser and the hot new TV shows The Restless Years and The Box.
The name, for those old enough to remember it, was Dianne Fromholtz, a young left-hander who later peaked as world No.4. But if Barty, with her backhand slice and volleying prowess, is considered in some respects to be a throwback to that era of all-court tennis, the 23-year-old Queenslander must be grateful how much times have changed.
At Kooyong 43 years ago, the understrength women’s singles draw contained a miserly 32 names (compared with 128 today) from a paltry seven nations, while the men’s numbers were 64 and eight, with the late American Vitas Gerulaitis at No.1.
Women players agitating for more opportunities and a fairer share of the purse knew their place. But they also had to keep fighting for it.
Runner-up Fromholtz was one of just four seeds, and played five matches rather than the seven Barty will need to win to break a national drought that stretches back to the lesser-known Chris O’Neil in 1978.
Fromholtz-Balestrat, as she is now, is happy to admit how much stronger the competition is today.
“We played the same amount of tournaments but it was completely different,’’ says the 63-year-old, who won 14 career singles and doubles titles and reached another three major semis.
“You can’t compare this era to our era. I mean, it’s just so much tougher.
The girls are so much taller, they’ve got the information earlier, you just can’t say ‘well, if I was good back then, I’d be good now’. I definitely just don’t think you would be able to compete with these girls.’’
Nonetheless, starting with trailblazer Billie Jean King and the so-called “Original Nine’’ – among them Australians Judy Tegart Dalton and Kerry Melville Reid – who in 1970 signed on for $1 for what was the genesis of today’s WTA, Barty and co are beneficiaries of what was achieved by those who came before.
“I think the girls have got it a lot better than we did in those days. I feel we were fighting for more prizemoney, we were fighting for bigger draws, so it helped the players of today get the amount of money that they’re getting at this time,’’ says Fromholtz-Balestrat.
“After the ‘Original Nine’ went, our group of players had to do all the clinics and all the cocktail parties and we had to promote the tennis so we could have more sponsorship, like we have today.
There were about 250 of us, and it was a hard slog, but a player could make $5000 a week, which in those days wasn’t too bad! But now they can make $5 million in three days.’
Barty pocketed over $16 million in 2019 alone, and if Fromholtz-Balestrat remembers receiving around $15,000 for her straight sets finals loss in 1977, both 2020 singles champions at Melbourne Park will earn $4.12 million.
Great work if you can get it, obviously, but usually only the greats do.
Barty has triumphed away, on the clay of Roland Garros, and reached her first major quarter-final at home 12 months ago, before losing to Petra Kvitova.
The pair is seeded to meet again in the second week, but Barty must first get past Ukrainian Lesia Tsurenko on Rod Laver Arena on Monday night, then potentially Rebecca Peterson, No.29 seed Elena Rybakina and No.13 Petra Martic if she is to match her result from last year.
“She’s got the complete game,’’ Fromholtz-Balestrat says of Barty.
“A lot of them you see come up, they come up very fast, and they’ve only got two shots, so to be a complete player and to play at the top level you need to have quite a lot of things in your arsenal.
“I think Ash is a fabulous player. She’s got an all-around game and she takes it in her stride, and she’s quite relaxed when she does it. She’s just a lovely person.
“It’s just refreshing to see someone like Ash come along. She’s quite a unique personality.’’
Fromholtz-Balestrat still works full-time as the director of coaching at the Long Beach Tennis Club in Carrum in Melbourne’s southeast, and hopes Barty’s success helps to inspire the current generation of young players – including the many girls who give up competitive sport in their teens.
Similarities have been noted with one of her own contemporaries, Evonne Goolagong Cawley, who is Barty’s mentor and close friend.
“Yes, the relaxed personality and the happiness, cos she’s always cheerful and Evonne was always like that, too, and with a big smile on her face, so I can see a little bit there. Definitely.’’
So, given that the host nation has a reigning-world-No.1-as-home-grown top seed for the first time in either draw since Lleyton Hewitt in 2003, dare we dream that there will next be an Australian champion at the Australian Open?
“That would be fantastic. Oh! Yes. Oh, yes,’’ says Fromholtz-Balestrat. “And I’m sure Evonne will be really happy if she does win it. She’s hoping for Ash to do that. We all are.’’
Linda Pearce has covered more than 50 grand slam tournaments, including 31 Australian Opens, plus Davis Cup finals and Olympic Games. She will be heading The New Daily’s Australian Open coverage.