INTO THE FIRE
17 Oct 2015 QWeekend | STORY LEISA SCOTT | PORTRAITS DAVID KELLY
Opening up about her battle with depression and need to take a break from her first sporting love , tennis prodigy Ash Barty eyes a different field.
The phrase falls from Ash Barty’s lips over and over again, as consistent as a Serena Williams serve in a deciding set: “Like a normal teenage girl.” Money and fame were hers, with more to come, as the pocket rocket from Springfield, an eastern suburb of Ipswich, moved up the rankings on the world professional tennis circuit. Heck, she played Williams on centre court at the Australian Open only last year. She was Australia’s great female tennis hope. What she craved, though, was to be a normal teenage girl.
“I never had a dream of being number one in the world,” says Barty. “I played tennis because I loved it and I just happened to be good at it. I’m not one for the spotlight and, you know, lots of times I just wanted to be a normal teenage girl.”
So just over 12 months ago, the then 18-year-old summoned the courage to take a break. She exited the circuit, moved back to her childhood home with parents Josie and Robert Barty, hooked up with friends, took up tennis coaching and, on occasion, gave informal chats about life as a tennis pro. All fairly normal. Except one of those chats was to the Southern Stars, Australia’s women’s cricket team, before they set off to Britain for their July-August Ashes-winning campaign. The women hit it off.
And the powers that be in cricket asked Barty if she’d like to have a bat. Growing up, she loved to watch a televised game with Rob on the family couch but her playing experience pulled up at a bit of hit-and-giggle in the back yard.
Still, she went along to Allan Border Field in Brisbane’s inner-city Albion to have a go. This was her time to try different things. In helmet and pads, she faced about 180 balls within an hour from a bowling machine, at speeds around 100km/h, as Andy Richards, the coach of the state women’s representative team, Queensland Fire, watched on. Says Richards: “It was the most extraordinary first session in my years of doing this. She never mishit one, she never missed one, she never nicked one.”
Rubbish, I say. At least one must have gone through to the keeper. “No,” says Richards. “That was the most extraordinary thing.”
So much for being normal. Three months on, after training and playing with “this phenomenal group of girls”, Barty has signed with the Fire. But this ain’t no Jarryd Hayne, sport-swapping, road-to-millions fairytale. At 17, Barty earned more than $600,000 playing tennis. Now 19, her contract with the Fire is worth $3000. And she couldn’t be happier. “This is my first taste ever of a team sport,” says Barty. “And oh god, it’s good.”
A cacophony is ricocheting off the walls of the indoor training facility at Albion’s National Cricket Centre: the thwack of ball on bat, calls from coaches and, every now and then, a raucous outburst of female laughter. And there’s Barty, in the thick of it, smiling broadly, as the Fire banter and bat into the night.
Grace Harris, one of the world-leading Southern Stars, comes out of the nets and over to Barty, raising the leg of her shorts to show off a huge, black bruise on her inner thigh. “Ooo, missy,” says Barty, as others gather to check it out. More jokes, a bit of back-slapping. Team spirit.
It was never like this for Barty on the professional tennis circuit. When the match was played, the training complete, Barty was in her hotel room, in a foreign country. On her own. Often crying. Of course, her “fantastic” coach Jason Stoltenberg, physio and others were on her side. But there were no girls her age to be silly with “like a normal teenage girl”. She was a decade younger than countrywomen Sam Stosur and Casey Dellacqua and the competitive nature of the environment made making friends with players of other nationalities hard. “They were there to work, there to beat you. To earn money, make a career. It was pretty tough where I couldn’t just go out for a fun night with friends; go to the movies, eat some popcorn.”
Barty was on the road young, just 13 when she embarked on her first, seven-week tour of Europe, with other hopefuls such as current bad boy Nick Kyrgios. The wonders of Paris lay outside her hotel but the introverted, family-loving girl didn’t want to visit the Eiffel Tower. The first thing she did was phone her mum, desperately homesick. “Touristy things never appealed. On my days off, I’d try to talk to my school friends and everyone back home. That’s just my personality.”
But she adored tennis and stuck it out. Diligent, a perfectionist and bright (she was Grade 8 Dux of Woodcrest State College, Springfield, before studying by correspondence), she had an arsenal of shots in her repertoire after learning under her coach and “second dad”, Jim Joyce, from the age of five. “The obsession started pretty quickly,” she says.
As did Australia’s obsession with the idea of a rising female tennis star after Barty won junior Wimbledon in 2011. She was 15 and the 12th seed, beating the world junior No 3, Russia’s Irina Khromacheva. When she won that final rally, Barty became only the second Australian girl to take the title since the competition started in 1948, the first player with indigenous heritage to win at Wimbledon since Evonne Goolagong-Cawley (Robert Barty is of the Ngaragu people in Snowy Mountains country), and along with Luke Saville, made history by being the first girl and boy Wimbledon champions from Australia in the same year. The whirlwind had begun.
Barty’s face softens as she remembers the game. “Yeah, wow, that last shot,” she says. “Short forehand cross court.” The win was like no other feeling – triumphant in the game she loved before about 8000 people at the spiritual home of tennis. Then came the glare of public attention. “I felt pretty uncomfortable after accepting the trophy,” she says. “It’s tradition to walk around the court and hold your trophy up and I’m not one to put myself out there, so I was a bit shy about walking around.”
Soon after, she turned professional and moved to Melbourne, the headquarters of Tennis Australia. By mid-2012, the weight of expectation was getting heavy for the 16-year-old. “People looked at you differently, treated you differently, spoke to you differently. That sense of expectation. Not intentional, but … I think around then was the first time when I’ve gone, ‘Ooh, hold on a minute, this is not what I want’. You know, ‘I’m just 16, just let me enjoy it and continue to enjoy the game of tennis’.”
And then it hit. Barty reveals that from 16, she battled depression. “I tried to hide it as best I could for as long as I could.” When alone, she’d cry “more times than not”. She felt muddle-headed. Selfdoubts grew louder. Training was hard. “Some days I felt normal but others, I’d feel I was incapable of anything. I felt my skills weren’t there, my mind wasn’t there, my body wasn’t there.”
Accepting she needed help was tough. It took a couple of “really bad weeks, mentally”, she says, before realising she could not battle the fog alone. She went to her “two amazing sisters”, Sara Coppolecchia, now 24, and Ali Barty, 22, first. Then her parents. Then an aunt with a history of depression and a medical background. She was prescribed medication and received counselling.
“It took me a lot of time to accept that it was there and I just had to learn a way to manage it,” says Barty. “And obviously [it was] a challenging time for a girl going through 16, 17, 18 [years of age].”
Mum Josie is surprised Barty opened up about her depression, but glad. “It’s good because she’s getting it out there, which is what she needs to do and talk about it.” Depression is in the family, says Josie, but she believes the loneliness of being an elite athlete in an individual sport played its part, even though she and Robert and Barty’s sisters travelled with her when they could. “It is a chemical imbalance thing, but the tennis and the isolation just exacerbated it and probably brought it out earlier than had she been doing normal kid stuff.” Her family always let her know it was okay if she wanted to stop touring and come home. “All we ever wanted is for her to be happy,” says Robert.
Still, she kept heading out to play tennis. In fact, Barty earned $600,000 in 2013, in the midst of her depression, despite a restricted schedule because of Women’s Tennis Association age regulations. She started the year by reaching the doubles final with Dellacqua at the Australian Open, the first Aussie pair to do so since 1977. The duo then went on to make the finals at Wimbledon and the US Open, becoming the 12th best doubles partnership in the world. Barty’s singles campaign was not as heady, but she improved her ranking to 164 by the end of 2013. Impressive, but still a long way shy of number one, the spot occupied by American powerhouse Serena Williams at the end of that year. And who should Barty meet in January 2014 in the first round of the Australian Open? The then 32-year-old Williams.
Barty laughs as she recalls being in the gym at Melbourne’s Rod Laver Arena when the draw came through. As the David and Goliath battle flashed up on social media, “everyone in the gym just looked at me”, she says. “And I was like, ‘Someone’s got to do it’.” On centre court, Barty met arguably the best female tennis player of all time. “I just thought, let’s give it a rip.” She won her first service game, a big relief that she would not be “dough-nutted”. She even got a couple of aces in. The crowd rallied behind her and despite losing 6-2, 6-1, Barty says she enjoyed the game – “a phenomenal experience, one not a lot of people can say they’ve done”.
Next was the annual pilgrimage in the middle of last year to the French Open and Wimbledon. Crunch time came. “Something just changed,” she recalls. “I wasn’t happy on court, the dynamic changed. I didn’t lose the hunger as such, but it felt like a job.”
The July wedding day of her sister, Sara, had been in Barty’s diary for months and, when she came home into the embrace of family, she resolved to take an indefinite break.
“Being around my family, like a normal teenage girl, solidified my decision,” says Barty. “It just felt normal. It just felt great.” She made the announcement after the US Open in September last year. “It’s just over a year now and I feel amazing. It was the best decision I ever made,” says Barty, who is off medication. “I didn’t take this break or stop because I was angry or felt I wasn’t getting my results, it was more, personally, I just needed to take a break and be around people who knew me for who I was and not who people perceived me to be.” She is not ruling out a return to tennis and remains in contact with Tennis Australia, with which she is undergoing a coaching training program. “I haven’t closed any doors,” she says.
“I love the game of tennis. I’m still involved every day. It will forever be my biggest passion. But towards the end of that season, I lost that. It started to feel like a job. It’s never, ever, ever been about the money. If it was about money, I’d still be gritting my teeth playing tennis. At the end of the day it’s very simple; I just didn’t want tennis to be a job.”
Groundsmen are tending the verdant grass of Allan Border Field and, high up in the stands, Ash Barty makes an “embarrassing” admission. Cricket gave her tennis elbow. In 15 years of tennis, she never felt the strain of lateral epicondylitis but after her first session training with the Fire, her left arm pulled up sore. “As a righthand batsman, you’ve got to use all your left arm and top hand and it wasn’t used to it, obviously,” she says. “I copped a bit from the girls for that.”
She loves the fact they give her stick. “I give it back, don’t worry,” she grins. The banter tells her she’s part of the team, that she has been accepted, a source of concern for her when Andy Richards invited her to come to training. “It was just an amazing feeling to have them say, ‘Alright, let’s go’. From day dot. I’ve never played a team sport before, so having that camaraderie was something else. Words can’t describe the calibre of people here. Just phenomenal.”
Her arm has come good now and she’s learning new strokes. Shot variety was a hallmark of Barty’s tennis and she says she can relate a lot of cricket strokes and body movement to tennis. Richards notes she has strong wrists from tennis, helping her generate good bat speed. “She’s got this unusual shot on her legs, a slog sweep I suppose, but she’ll play it off medium-pacers, which will be frustrating for some bowlers.” She has a good arm for throwing, top eye for catching, and although “technically not perfect, she’s got good ticker. Really, really good guts.”
Not that it’s been without hiccup. Barty’s first intra-club practice game last month saw her face the bowling of Jess Jonassen, current Player of the Year in the Women’s National Cricket League, and a key part of the Ashes-winning Southern Stars. “I was absolutely sweating bullets,” says Barty. “Never walked out to bat on any field before and JJ was bowling. Never faced her, either. And I was like, ‘Oh, this isn’t going to end well’. And yep, first ball, sure enough, see ya later, middle stump. And JJ’s just put her head in her hands. Probably the first time she’s never celebrated a wicket. But, it can only go up from there.”
Richards is sure of that. He’s aiming for Barty to play in the Women’s Big Bash League (Twenty20), which launches its inaugural season in December with televised games. A few matches in the 50-over WNCL now under way should blood her for the big hitting game. “I really believe she has the game to play Big Bash really well,” Richards says. “She has the ability to play non-traditional shots, which is what Big Bash is about. Her ball-striking ability tells me she can play for Australia.”
Barty is making no such claims. “I’d just like to keep developing and see where it goes,” she says. “I’ve got no expectations. One day, I’d love to be out in the middle with these girls and get a good win. I’m not sure what that feeling would be like, but I’m pretty sure it would be nice and special,” she says. “I’m still raw, still learning. Right now, I’m just loving being around the girls, love being home and if that’s as far as it goes, well, mate, it’s been a damn good time."