Tennis is one of the most psychologically demanding sports.
It’s also perhaps one of the loneliest.
While a golfer can discuss their next shot with their caddy, or a cricketer can have a chat with their batting partner, a tennis player is completely alone once they step onto the court.
With the average tennis player coming into their prime between the ages of 19 and 24, the pressure being lumped on our young talents is perhaps too much too soon.
World No.1 Ashleigh Barty experienced these psychological stresses first hand.
And her meteoric rise to the top hasn’t all been plain sailing.
Barty struggled to cope with the stresses of tour life during the early stages of her career, describing it as a “double-edged sword.”
“I had to grow up very quickly. I think part of me loved it and I think part of me missed having a bit more of a normal childhood,” the 24-year-old Australian told Paralympic gold medalist Kurt Fearnley in an interview on One Plus One.Embed from Getty Images
Even after winning the 2011 junior Wimbledon title, Barty was over-encumbered by the pressures of playing in the WTA Tour.
“It was all just too much. I was younger than the other girls on tour, so I knew them but not well. I just felt lonely and strange.”
Missing her family and unable to live a normal teenage life, Barty recalled herself turning up to training sessions and matches in tears, despite dominating her opponents on the court.
“I missed hanging with my friends, going to school, and kind of all the little things that you do as a kid,” she told Fearnley.
“I was very lucky to have a lot of success, but I’m still very much a homebody, and I kind of lost my way a little bit with not being able to connect with my family.”
Realising the sacrifice she had made of her teenage years, Barty resigned from the WTA Tour indefinitely and returned home to Australia in 2014.
Walking away from tennis after experiencing such success and choosing not to take a protected ranking in her absence certainly took some guts.
She realised that some things transcend tennis and her wellbeing and her relationships with her family outweighed her desire to win tournaments.
“When she decided to finish tennis, we knew she was struggling, but we didn’t realise how much she didn’t like the attention and the limelight.” Her father said recently.“We said ‘OK you have got to be happy darl, we are here to support you through the whole process’.”
After arriving home, she spent some time fishing, hanging out with friends at the pub, and enjoying the company of her family. It was a welcomed reprieve away from the constant travel and cameras of the tennis circuit.
Ever the athlete, Barty still couldn’t stay away from the heat of competition and remarkably swapped her tennis racket for a cricket bat. She signed for the Brisbane Heat and made 9 appearances for the side in Women’s Big Bash League in the 2015-2016 season.
“At that time, cricket was still very much semi-pro, and girls were working full-time jobs and training, and that made me appreciate what I had before in tennis just that little bit more.”
“We played a game at the Gabba, and we won and went down the shed to have a beer. I’d never had a beer after a win before,” she exclaimed.
Having never experienced the camaraderie and friendships that come with team sports like cricket, this was all new stuff for Barty.
The restrictive cocoon of the tennis circuit had inhibited her from doing things like merely going for a beer after the match.Embed from Getty Images
But Barty ultimately came to miss the competition of the tennis circuit.
“I really missed the feeling of fulfilment where you know you’ve done all the work, all the preparation and then it’s just about having a crack.”
That, accompanied by the challenge of starting afresh from the bottom of the WTA Rankings, was what lured her into returning in 2016.
Her time away from tennis was undoubtedly a catalyst for the young Australian to kick start her career.
Following her time off, she realised, “if I want to play my best tennis, I have to be the best person I can be because they definitely go hand in hand.”
Over the past 4 years, Ashleigh Barty has staged one of the greatest comebacks tennis has ever seen.
Jennifer Capriati is the only other player I can think of to have come back from similar circumstances to achieve such feats.
Like Barty, Capriati too suffered from a mental burn-out caused by the perpetuity of the tennis circuit. She also took some time away from the tour and came back to claim 3 grand slam championships between 2000 and 2003.
Within a year of her return, Ash Barty was on a similar trajectory, claiming her first singles title in Kuala Lumpur and achieved her first top-20 finish in 2017.
Barty has now gone on to win 8 singles titles, including her first grand slam championship which came last year at the French Open.
Although her success hasn’t come without hard work.
Having continuously played tennis for the past 4 years, while battling through a variety of injuries, Barty has truly earnt her throne at the top of the WTA Rankings.Embed from Getty Images
And her hard work has paid off in other ways too.
Perhaps more importantly for Barty is that her status in the WTA Rankings now affords her some liberty to choose when she wants to play and when she wants to spend time at home with her family.
“My family is such a massive part of my career,” she said.
“If I’m not able to bring them and involve them in my career, I’m not going to be my true self, and I’m not going to be authentic.”
Despite winning the Adelaide International back in January, Ashleigh Barty called her 2020 season to an early close, announcing on her Instagram that she’d be taking a break from tennis due to ongoing concerns regarding the coronavirus pandemic.
Though disappointed not to be able to surge-on from her French Open triumph last season, the break will have revitalised Barty, who’s Instagram has been littered with photos of her enjoying spending time with her family and friends.
She’s also had a few highs away from tennis this year.
She became the women’s club champion at the Brookwater Golf Club in Queensland, while also watched on as her beloved Richmond Tigers won the AFL grand final and presented the Tigers with the grand final trophy.
Speaking on the pandemic, Barty stated, “there are a lot more important things in life than hitting a tennis ball.”
“I think it’s a really important time to bring that perspective about health, loved ones and your family all of these little things that people sometimes take for granted.”
Her commitment to her family and desire to lead an everyday life are vital parts of why she has achieved such greatness on and off the court.
While working hard to hone in on her craft, the world No.1 knows that to perform at her best, she needs to occasionally step back and take some time to live her life.
And as history repeats itself, Barty’s extended period away from the tennis circuit this season could once again revitalise her to take her game to the next level in 2021 to pick up multiple grand slam titles.
“My dream is winning Wimbledon, without a doubt.”
And there is no doubt this new Australian sporting icon will definitely get there.
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