Crash: The simple, yet complex life of the World’s No.1 tennis player, Aussie Ash Barty
If Ash Barty never hits another tennis ball in anger, her story still stands as a historic bellringer, a tale of triumph that has to be seen to be believed, Robert Craddock writes.
Ash Barty has learnt the secret to coping with life away from home – you take home with you. Or at least little bits of it.
In her vast tennis travels, Barty takes Queensland coffee beans, Australian chocolate, a cricket bat and a jar of Vegemite which she notes always seems to last longer than the chocolate.
“I like taking the coffee beans … it’s just that taste of home first thing in the morning,” Barty says.
“When I’m overseas, my family sends over a gift box of Aussie things, which is really nice.”
Much to her lament – because they have elite status in the Barty household – something they cannot send is her three pet dogs: two maltese shih tzu crosses and a border collie.
They were lying close by when Barty and long-time partner Garry Kissick, 30, decided at home to get engaged recently and there was that tangible sense of a “family” moment.
British golfer Tommy Fleetwood used to take his 14-year-old dog Maisy on tour, which raises the question whether the Barty entourage could be expanded, at least in Australia.
“I wish … but no. The puppies have their kingdom at home. My parents and my sisters and Garry’s family as well will look after them. They are spoilt rotten when we are away. I am not sure they love it when we get home.”
Barty, two-time Grand Slam winner, world No.1 for two years and reigning Wimbledon champion, has become one of the greatest Australian sports stories of this or any era.
On the male side of Australian tennis there is a sense that there has been plenty of strut and not enough substance, a total contrast to Barty who often just plays and wins with grace and poise without flashy trimmings or big statements.
Later this month she will try to become the first Australian woman for 43 years to win the Australian Open in Melbourne (January 17-30). Success in that tournament would be career-enhancing but not career-defining.
If she never hit another tennis ball in anger, her story still stands as a historic bellringer – the junior Wimbledon champion who became burnt out, gave the game away, played cricket for the Brisbane Heat in the Big Bash, dropped to 325 in the world rankings, then stormed back to win the French Open and Wimbledon.
The wonderment of the yarn will only grow in time. Tell it to your grandkids and they will think you made it up.
This is normally the part of the story where, in tracing the rise of a global star, you point out how they are now based in Florida or New York to be closer to the action, Bermuda or Monaco to get a better tax rate, or Byron Bay because it’s Byron Bay.
But part of the charm of Barty’s journey is that she is going (everywhere and) nowhere.
Her stunning rise and busy global schedule have only served to entrench her fondness for her home region in Springfield, Ipswich, where she has recently moved into a new house.
“I have lived in the Springfield area my entire life and Mum and Dad have lived there for their entire lives. My sisters are not far away. We are excited that we are in our new place. It’s beautiful.”
The 25 year old’s life in Springfield is a bit like cricketing superstar Brian Lara’s in his native Trinidad.
Lara will always turn heads, but because he’s lived there all his life, there’s that soothing part-of-the-furniture feel that lets him float around town without feeling like George Clooney suddenly appearing on a Gold Coast beach.
“When I’m away I still miss the really simple things like having fish and chips and a picnic or having coffee with my sisters,” Barty says.
“Going over to Mum’s and watching the dogs run around. It’s the little things I do miss and you take for granted when you are home.
“Thankfully technology is allowing us to connect no matter where I am in the world. Even when I am home, I FaceTime my nieces and nephew and they love it.
“It’s a nice connection and nice tradition. That almost makes it easier when I am away.”
For Barty, leaving her contented home life to tackle the world has its challenges but her mindset coach Ben Crowe came up with the pivotal word last year when he told her to consider her eight-month journey around the world an “adventure” because the world would never be like that again.
So she did – and won five titles.
Barty was given an early life lesson about how it is possible to enjoy a spectacular tennis career yet still find fulfilment beyond it in life’s simplest pleasures.
As a 15 year old she spent time with tennis great Steffi Graf in Las Vegas as a guest of the Adidas player development program and left most impressed after not simply hitting with Graf but joining her socially at a baseball game.
It wasn’t Graf’s Grand Slam pedigree (22 individual titles), her 377 weeks at world No.1, or her power union with husband and fellow great Andre Agassi that left the deepest impression on Barty.
It was the new mother’s simple contentment at family life.
“I think with Steffi there is this incredible aura about what she did as a tennis player but when I saw her, I saw Steffi the person.
“I just loved the fact no matter what she achieved in tennis she was just happy. She had a healthy, loving family and she was just happy in that role she was doing. Even though I was only 15, it was eye-opening to me.”
Barty is one of tennis’s most popular world No.1s, not simply because of her skillset but her humility. Part of Barty’s mantra is to not let on-court results shape her self-esteem, a mindset which takes the extreme emotional spikes out of victory and defeat.
Rival players smile at the fact her celebrations for crucial goals for her beloved Richmond Tigers AFL team have at times been far more animated than anything seen on court in her two Grand Slam wins.
It often seems tennis is her business, the AFL her pleasure. She also plays golf off a handicap of three and while her Big Bash days are over she still treasures her friendships with her former teammates.
Peers treat her fondly and show respect in small but telling ways.
The day I interviewed her in December when she filmed a new Uber Eats commercial, she had received messages from some Dutch players over a news report in their homeland which claimed: “Ash Barty is injured and out of the Australian Open.”
She thanked them for their concern but pointed out it was fake news. It was in fact last year’s finalist Jen Brady who withdrew with a foot injury. Barty lives with the fame but doesn’t wallow in it.
When her engagement announcement created global headlines she joked that she and Garry “felt like turning the television off for a few days” though she couldn’t do that because she wanted to watch the cricket.
Beneath the calm, unruffled demeanour lies an impish sense of humour on display at Wimbledon two years ago when she playfully slipped Disney references into her regular press conferences.
It took eagle-eyed Australian presenter Kelli Underwood to spot the trend with Barty dropping lines such as a Toy Story reference, saying: “I chat to my niece and over and over she just tells me, ‘you can go to infinity and beyond’.”
“Disney was an easy one for me. I am a Disney fanatic. I love it. The lines just popped straight out of my head. Good fun.
“During the Australian Open last year we did fruit and veg but I don’t think anyone picked up on it. I actually said prickly pear in an interview.”
As seasoned a traveller as she is, there are times when Barty morphs into that fan who descends on the Grand Slam souvenir shops at Wimbledon, New York and Paris like any other tourist.
“That’s one thing I enjoy doing is sending stuff home from the slams. Different slams have different traditions. Teacups and mugs from Wimbledon. The towels from all the slams are really cool. There are key rings … it’s a bit of everything. It’s a cool tradition.”
Recently she went back in time to invite her niece Lucy and her five-year-old friends to a weekend coaching session on courts Ash played on as a child and as the memories flowed she thought: “I remember when this was what it was about … just hitting balls with your mates.”
Now it’s back to the big time.
Anyone for coffee?