There were plenty of murmurs at the start of the season, whether Ash Barty could transition smoothly back in tournament mode after a full year out of action.
Barty back in business to become the ‘complete player’
The world n°1 has returned to tennis in style and opened her Australian Open account in devastating fashion.
Most elite players had featured on tour since the WTA was allowed to recommence last Autumn, however, world No.1 Barty opted to embrace home life due to the Covid-19 pandemic.
Plenty of golf, time with the family and dogs, but soon the competitive instincts kicked in.
“I've had a couple cracks at that (year break from tennis), but I certainly enjoy the year on more, more being able to challenge myself every day, that's for sure,” revealed the 24-year-old.
“Absolutely, I missed tennis every single day. The competitor in me missed what this is all about. Missed the last hour before we come out on the court when (coach Craig Tyzzer) ‘Tyz’ and I chat about how we’re going to try and dissect the match. That’s what I missed the most; it’s coming out here and really enjoying that thrill and the fight.”
Last month Simona Halep needed a match tie-break to overcome Barty during their Adelaide exhibition 3-6, 6-1, 10-8. The Romanian was surprised by the Australian’s automatic return to top level tennis.
"Ash (Barty) doesn’t look like she didn’t play last year, so congrats to her.”
The signs were promising for the Roland-Garros 2019 champion, who then needed competitive matches to truly test her comeback credentials.
Over to Melbourne Park for the Yarra Valley Classic. Three tricky victories in differing conditions preceded a magnificent 7-6(3), 6-4 title triumph over Australian Open 2020 finalist Garbiñe Muguruza.
Talk quickly turned to Barty’s chances at her home major.
To completely erase any doubts over the world No.1’s form, the top seed opened her Australian Open account with a first round 6-0, 6-0 thumping of 82nd-ranked Danka Kovinic in just 44 minutes.
A backhand passing on the back foot earned an instant break, whilst rattling through the first 16 points. It was never in doubt as the home charge’s all-court craft was in immaculate condition.
Barty truly illustrated why she occupies top spot.
“I wanted to go out there and almost take the sting out of the match and get it on my terms as much as possible right from the get-go and make it feel like she had a real mountain to climb.”
It’s been such a seamless transition back into elite tennis, but Barty isn’t overly surprised.
“Yes and no. I know deep down my team and I have done the work. We've earned the right to play at this level. And I think there's always a little bit of the unknown at the start of a season, particularly after such a long break, of what that level might be, knowing there's every chance it's not going to be exactly where we want it straightaway,” reflected the Queenslander, semi-finalist at the Australian Open last January.
“I think knowing that we've done the work during preseason, done the work over the years, I feel comfortable in my own skin to go out there and find a way, whether the tennis is great or it's not, I know I've got other weapons that I can go to, not just hitting a tennis ball.”
It’s only the first hurdle cleared in Melbourne and Barty is eager to keep building, keep evolving, the true hallmark of a champion.
“Everything. I want to challenge myself to be the complete player. I want to challenge myself to grow and develop every single day, both as a human and as a tennis player,” insisted the Australian, expecting a “ripper” against compatriot Daria Gavrilova in the second round.
“Being able to rise to that occasion time and time again is what I enjoy the most, regardless of what happens on any given night, we wake up the next day and go back to work and try and get better again.
“I think worrying about the ranking and focusing on the ranking isn't really in my mind, but having the intent to be the best version of myself every day certainly is.”
Australian fans will hope their taliswoman can rise to the occasion six more times at Melbourne Park this fortnight.
If Barty plays like her opener, there is every chance.