'It's the best decision I've ever made' - Ashleigh Barty talks time off, coming back, and all things tennis at the Aegon Open

  • 20-year-old Ashleigh Barty won her first WTA main draw match since the 2014 US Open at the Aegon Open
  • Barty took an 18 month break from the sport and took up cricket, after losing her enjoyment of the game
  • Back in action in Nottingham, the Aussie caught us up with her journey to date
Ashleigh Barty during Wimbledon in 2014. (Photo by Dan Kitwood/Getty Images)

Ashleigh Barty is back! The former teenage prodigy took a two year break from tennis, but has now dropped the cricket bat and reclaimed the tennis racquet. On Tuesday at the Aegon Open, she caught us up on her journey.

The Aegon Open is live from Monday 6 - Sunday 12 June 2016

When you play competitive tennis virtually every week as a pro, it becomes harder to recall certain matches as the years roll by. Still, her first round match at the Aegon Open Nottingham may be one Ashleigh Barty remembers fondly in years to come. After falling out of love with tennis, the youngster took a break from the tour back in 2014. Nevertheless, the former Grand Slam finalist came back to notch her first WTA main draw win in over a year on Tuesday: 6-3 6-2 over Shuai Peng.

“It was a really good start. We probably couldn't ask for anything more at the moment,” Barty enthused – not just of her win over Peng, but of the matches and wins she had gained prior to this. “It's my first WTA event in just under two years, but so far we've had a good start and last week played a good six or seven matches in a 50 (ITF tournament) in Eastbourne.”

The former teenage star was subject to much attention prior to her hiatus from tennis. And it is not difficult to see why. The stockily-built right-hander was into her first Grand Slam final at the tender age of 16, and expectation rocketed with her results. Nevertheless, now that she is back, she is steering well clear of pressure.

“We sort of had no expectations,” she said of her return. “We were just gonna go out and play and see how it went. For me it isn't about getting the results early - it's about the process, and getting used to being back on court. 

Before Tuesday, Barty's most recent WTA main draw outing was the 2014 US Open. (Photo by Streeter Lecka/Getty Images)
“It was a bonus just getting into the main draw, every match now is absolutely a bonus. Just being able to go out there and play against quality players, that's the challenge you want. Hopefully I can string together some good points in the games and build some momentum.”

What happened to Ashleigh Barty? The promising junior turned WTA professional had been steadily making her way up the singles rankings, and hit a career-high of no. 12 in doubles. But as things slowed down and the attention accelerated, the teen decided that enough was enough.

“It was a tough six months at the end of 2014, and that sort of solidified for me that [tennis] wasn't what I wanted to do at that stage,” Barty reflects. “I just needed some time away.”

Many will know that the multi-talented youngster enjoyed a brief stint as a professional cricketer during the 20 or so months she spent away from the WTA tour. But when the Aussie decided to hang up her racquet indefinitely, she never did it with the intention of switching sports. “Cricket Australia approached me,” she explains. “I knew them through an old tennis physio who's now their team physio, so she asked me to come along to a dinner and just chat to the girls. They invited me to come to a few sessions for a bit of a hit and giggle, and from there offered me a contract to play in the Big Bash!

“It was a really exciting sort of six months for me, so it was a nice break [from tennis] - but one that I definitely needed.”

The tennis world should be abundantly glad that Barty's talent has not been lost to it. While she showed potential to forge a career for herself elsewhere, the current world no. 623 is immensely skilled with a racquet in her hands. She showed as much against Shuai Peng – another woman trying to make a comeback on tour – on Tuesday: Striking balls so clean and deep that they consistently struck the baseline, and using slice as a weapon more than a defensive option. There was even some mental toughness on display, with the big-hitter hanging on and fighting after losing a 5-0 second set lead.

Although she spent many months away from her first sport, Barty had never finished with tennis for good. “It's always in the back of your mind when you play something professionally,” she commented.  “I was still watching tennis and very involved, and it was great to see Case(y Dellacqua, former doubles partner) have so much success, as well. I hit a few balls every now and again, sporadically. And I think it was one day in maybe September or October, I was hitting and I was like “Ahh, I miss this!” So I thought I'd come back, and start with a bit of doubles in February and March this year. And loved it even more.”

Barty partnered Casey Dellacqua to reach three Grand Slam doubles finals in 2013. (Photo by Jan Kruger/Getty Images)
It was not simply a question of jumping right back to where she had left off, though. Even beyond losing her world ranking, the Aussie had not been engaging in the long hours of training that all players undertake. And even for a woman with her talent, that had its consequences.

“All of it!” she laughed, when asked if there was any component of her game that had drastically dropped in standard since 2014. “It's still taking time, it's still all not quite where we want it. I mean it's a development year. It's gonna get better and better the more that I play.” And the hard work began before her semifinal showing in Eastbourne last week, Barty revealing: “We had about seven or eight weeks of pre-season that just happened to be mid season. It was good to knuckle down and get some training.”

Quite evident when speaking to Barty was her frequent use of the term 'we'. While cricket has now taken a back seat, the 20-year-old sees her tennis very much as a joint effort. 

“I feel my team around me is really really good. Craig Tizer is working as my coach and he's fabulous. He's still very close with Jason (Stoltenberg, her former coach), and Stolls is always going to have a massive influence on my tennis. And then my trainer as well... we're working together as a team.”

That team is currently enjoying Barty's grass-court success. A junior Wimbledon champion who has also reached the doubles final as a senior, the rising star has always found the lawns a thing of joy. Needless to say, she's happy to be back.

“It's gorgeous, I love it!” she enthused of the surface. “This is tennis for me. I think most Australians love coming and playing on grass. The courts are in great nick, the weather is fantastic, so we can't really complain at all.”

With such a mindset and a love for the grass-courts – as well as “two years of lost time to make up for” - Barty has the potential to go deep at the Aegon
Barty has previously been a part of the Australian Fed Cup team. (Photo by Chris Hyde/Getty Images)
 Open. Next up is lucky loser Andrea Hlavackova, who fought hard to dismiss no. 5 seed Yanina Wickmayer 7-5 7-6 in round one. Still, the Ipswich-born qualifier is playing free from pressure of both an internal and external nature.

“[For the Aussies] there's nothing to really go on. I've only just started,” Barty pointed out, when asked about whether pressure from her home country had begun to mount. “But I don't think [the pressure is greater for Australian players as opposed to other countries.] The support that we get in Australia is phenomenal. And I think everyone deals with it differently, but I certainly love it. There's nothing quite like playing at home and having an Aussie crowd behind you.”

Several minutes of bright chatter on an equally bright afternoon suggests everything is looking rather positive for Ashleigh Barty. Even with the near future uncertain – with her current ranking, her forthcoming schedule is 'still a bit up in the air ' - Barty is taking everything moment by moment, match by match. And the best part?

“I've definitely rekindled my love for the game, and found this is what I really want to do. It's exciting to be here and playing some good tennis. At the moment, I'm just enjoying being back.”

The future stretches off into the distance, and Ashleigh Barty has resumed her tennis journey once again. There will be highs, and there will be lows - the joys of victory, and the agonies of defeat. But for a future champion of Barty's calibre, the positives will surely outweigh the negatives. And whatever happens, she is not looking back. As the Aussie herself said:

“Coming back is definitely the best decision I've ever made.”

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"It's the best decision I've ever made" - Ashleigh Barty talks time off, coming back, and all things tennis at the Aegon Open

20-year-old Ashleigh Barty has won her first WTA main draw match since leaving tennis at the end of 2014. She caught us up with her journey to date.

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