Re: Ashleigh Barty
The next big thing?
November 21, 2010
FORMER Davis Cup-winning player and captain John Fitzgerald is an enthusiast, but he is also an experienced tennis analyst, which makes the following statement significant. Fitzgerald: ''We've got a player in Australia at the moment who's 14 years of age who is probably the best prospect we've had in 20 years in the women's game.''
The unusually bold proclamation from Tennis Australia's newest board member came during a radio interview. No names were mentioned in a futile attempt to control expectations and protect the innocent, but the emerging young star's identity is no secret: Queenslander Ashleigh Barty.
Fitzgerald did not return The Age's call this week, but has good reason to be cautious, having noted earlier in the radio chat that 2002 junior Wimbledon champion Todd Reid (career-high ranking 105th, currently inactive) was once described as the next Lleyton Hewitt. In fact, history will show that Ben Ellwood (No. 3 in juniors, a best of 140th in seniors) turned out to be a more valid comparison.
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Barty is already drawing some heady comparisons of her own. Tennis Australia's national head coach, former Queen's Club champion and pro golfer Scott Draper, sees similar court craft but a potentially more powerful version of Martina Hingis's game. He also notes similarities with the sublimely talented Hana Mandlikova - except that Barty has a bigger serve.
So will she be the new Sam Stosur (French Open finalist and current world No. 6)? Or the next Debbie Freeman (junior Wimbledon champion 1980, present whereabouts unknown)? And is the girl with distant indigenous heritage, whom the Koori Mail is already hailing as possibly ''another Evonne Goolagong'', really be Australia's best female prospect in two decades?
''I don't think that's necessarily an exaggerated call, based on her ability,'' says Draper. ''Male or female, Ash is probably the most talented, or one of the most talented kids in terms of just hand-eye [co-ordination], skill, feel, she can volley, can slice, she's just one of those really gifted people.
''But it's a long road, and we have a history in this country lately of making kids feel like they've made it before they actually have, and that's certainly not what we intend to do. Yes, there's going to be hype around her, and yes, there's excitement that there's someone there who's as good as she is and is ticking as many boxes as she is, but it's a journey and you never really know until they're on the tour, day in and day out, competing against the best in the world.
''Even someone like Sam [Stosur], it's taken her a long time to get to where she is. There's not many Lleyton Hewitts come along that at 16 years of age are winning tour events and are No. 1 at 20. So that's pretty rare, but, gee, Ash is very exciting. Very exciting.''
Barty's first national title came as a 12-year-old. At 13, she won two International Tennis Federation under-18 events on clay in Ipswich. In August this year, four months after turning 14, she was undefeated while representing Australia at the ITF world junior titles in the Czech Republic. The next month, as the youngest player in the Junior Fed Cup, she finished unbeaten as Australia was placed fifth in Mexico. She owns the Australian title in her own age group, and the one above.
With an international junior ranking of 145, Barty is the third-youngest player among the top 150. Under-age results, of course, can be misleading, because some countries (see Spain) prefer their players to be educated at senior satellite events. For that reason, Barty's most significant result came at the $25,000 ITF women's circuit tournament in Mount Gambier last month, where the Queensland teen defeated top seed and world No. 184 Arina Rodionova (sister of Anastasia) en route to the semi-finals in just her second Open event.
It would not have surprised her coach of nine years, Brisbane's Jim Joyce. ''From day one, Ash showed amazing natural ability and concentration,'' Joyce has said. ''When she was five, her parents rang me and I put her in a group lesson thinking they could bring her back a year later. But she hit a couple of balls back at me and I had her back the next week!''
She is still there, when not spending an invaluable week in Las Vegas training with Andre Agassi's former coach, Darren Cahill, and his long-time trainer Gil Reyes (as she did recently), or when not in Europe honing her game on her favourite surface, clay. Academically, she is dux of her year; encouragingly, she comes from a supportive family who tell Draper and Joyce: ''We don't know anything about tennis. You guys do it.''
Barty will not be overly tall, so building strength is a priority, and Justine Henin sets an example. ''If you're going to walk on court with Serena [Williams] or someone like that, you've got to be able to throw some serious punches back at those sort of heavyweights, so I think that's Ash's real focus,'' says Draper.
''And the other side is that her greatest strength is her mind, but it's also in some ways something she has to work on a little bit.
''She's a little bit of a perfectionist, her expectations of herself are extreme, and she's just got to balance that a little bit. She puts herself under a bit of pressure sometimes, which is great to see.
''You want people who are driven, and all successful people have that, but it's just something that she's got to look at.''
A minor quibble, to be sure, for Fitzgerald's now-identified best-in-a-generation prospect. ''The feedback you get when someone's watched her is always so positive,'' says Draper. ''They just think, 'Oh my God, what a talent'.''
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