From battling depression to year-end No.1: the re-birth of Ashleigh Barty

After taking 18 months out to play cricket, the Australian won the French Open and WTA Finals in 2019 to make her a gold medal prospect for the Tokyo 2020 Olympics

By Rory Jiwani

In September 2014, Ashleigh Barty was 18 years old and sick of tennis.

A former Junior Wimbledon champion, the Australian had reached Grand Slam finals in doubles but was languishing outside the top 200 in singles.

She was exhausted and depressed, and she quit the sport.

But after 18 months playing cricket, Barty returned to tennis and has not looked back.

In June she took the French Open crown at Roland Garros, her first Grand Slam singles title, before moving up to number one in the world.

And she clinched the season-ending WTA Finals to end the year on top of the rankings.

Ashleigh Barty poses with her trophy for winning the 2019 French Open at Roland Garros

Barty's success in Paris came less than a year after she claimed a first senior doubles Slam, and a first WTA Premier title.

Following that win at the Miami Open, Barty described her progress: "I have had a very unique journey. It's been two or three years since I've been coming back to the sport and I've had some heartbreaking losses but some pretty amazing moments,"

Her prowess in singles and doubles makes the 23-year-old Queenslander a surefire medal prospect for Tokyo 2020.

Ashleigh Barty holding the Miami Open trophy between tournament director James Blake and runner-up Karolina Pliskova

Initial rise

Barty had come to attention in 2011 when she beat Madison Keys on the way to taking the Junior Wimbledon title.

She played in her first senior Grand Slam six months later, winning a wildcard into the main draw of the 2012 Australian Open when still only 15.

Ashleigh Barty holds her trophy for winning the 2011 Wimbledon Girls' Singles title

Her first season in the pro ranks saw her crack the top 200, and establish a formidable doubles partnership with compatriot Casey Dellacqua.

In 2013, Barty thrashed former French Open champion Francesca Schiavone in the Hopman Cup, and made her Fed Cup debut for Australia.

Her progress in singles was steady if not spectacular, but doubles was a different story.

As home wildcards, Barty and Dellacqua went all the way to the final of the Australian Open before going down in three sets to Italian pair Sara Errani and Roberta Vinci.

They also reached the finals of Wimbledon and the US Open, but lost them too.

2013 Australian Open women's doubles final (L-R): winners Roberta Vinci and Sara Errani, runners-up Ashleigh Barty and Casey Dellacqua

Decline and depression

After winning her first match of the 2014 season at the Brisbane International, Barty pulled out of the tournament with a groin strain.

She would not win another main draw singles contest all year.

Barty was below her best as she went down to Serena Williams in the first round of the Australian Open, and struggled badly for form thereafter.

While she and Dellacqua continued to perform well as a duo, there was no repeat of the success they enjoyed the previous year.

And after heavy first round defeats at the US Open in both singles and doubles, Barty had had enough.

"It was too much too quickly for me as I've been travelling from quite a young age," she admitted

"I wanted to experience life as a normal teenage girl and have some normal experiences."

But there was more.

Her father Robert, a former golfer who suffered from obsessive-compulsive disorder, later revealed that Ashleigh had to undergo counselling and take medication for depression for almost two years.

"I remember most sessions would end in tears, and then I’d walk out feeling a million times better," she remembered.

Cricket and return

Barty decided to quit tennis and take a break.

She went fishing, travelled and had some fun, and also tried some coaching.

In 2015 the former tennis prodigy dipped her toes into cricket by joining the inaugural Women's Big Bash League with the Brisbane Heat.

“We played a game at the Gabba, and we won, and went down the shed to have a beer - she recalled - I’d never had a beer after a win before.”

Having made a fast start in Brisbane's cricket leagues, Barty toiled when moving up to national competition.

Early in 2016 she realised it was time to make her return to the tennis court, initially in doubles.

After winning two small events with fellow Australian Arina Rodionova, Barty made her singles comeback in the Wimbledon warm-up event at Eastbourne.

Seemingly invigorated by her time away, she eased through qualifying without dropping a set before reaching the quarter-finals.

Barty went down in two tiebreaks to Pliskova, a top-10 player by that point, but she had shown plenty of promise on her return to the tour.

Meteoric rise

In June 2016 the Australian was unranked.

At the end of 2017 she was number 17 after winning her first career singles title at the Malaysian Open and reaching her first Premier final at the Wuhan Open.

During that time she also beat top-20 opponents including Venus Williams, Elena Vesnina and Garbine Muguruza.

Her rise didn't stop in 2018 with wins at the Nottingham Open (on grass, her favourite surface) and at the year-end WTA Elite Trophy, her biggest singles title before the Miami Open.

Despite the retirement of longtime partner Dellacqua, Barty continued to enjoy success in doubles and with Coco Vandeweghe won her first career Grand Slam title at the US Open.

The 22-year-old started the 2019 season strong, reaching her first Grand Slam quarter-final at the Australian Open.

"I’m a completely different person and different player,” Barty said in January

"When I played Serena in the first round in 2014 [at the Australian Open] it was pretty daunting … now I feel like I belong with everyone on the court."

Proud indigenous heritage

The four-time Grand Slam doubles finalist is a woman with many interests.

She loves animals and is also a qualified barista

Barty is also very proud of her Indigenous heritage.

Her great-grandmother was a member of the Ngaragu people from southern NSW and north-eastern Victoria.

"My heritage is really important to me," she said.

"I’ve always had that olive complexion and the squished nose, and I just think it’s important to do the best I can to be a good role model." - Ashleigh Barty to Sydney Morning Herald

In 2018 she was named Tennis Australia's Indigenous ambassador to encourage more children to play the sport.

"I'm a very proud Indigenous woman and I think that for me taking on this role is something very close to my heart" she said.

Her idol was fellow Indigenous Australian Evonne Goolagong, and she has followed in her footsteps to re-gain the number one spot for Australia in the women's rankings.

Earlier versions of this article were published on 31st March and 8th June 2019.


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