Mon, Nov 06, 2017 - Page 11 News List

Rising star Barty shines in Zhuhai after ace season

AFP, ZHUHAI, China

Ashleigh Barty returns to Coco Vandeweghe during their semi-final match on Saturday at the WTA Elite Trophy tournament in Zhuhai, China.

Photo: AFP

Ashleigh Barty might have fallen to Coco Vandeweghe in China this week, but the 21-year-old Australian has proven she has what it takes to be a top player.

Barty, who had fired the highest number of aces by the end of the Elite Trophy semi-finals, was outside the top 300 this time last year, but is set to finish the season at world No. 17 after a string of wins.

Since June, she has recorded nine victories against top 20 players and came tantalizingly close to lifting the trophy at the Wuhan Open after reaching the final.

This week alone has seen her triumph over former world No. 1 Angelique Kerber and Russia’s Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova — both in straight sets.

“This year’s certainly been a surprise... we’ve had some ripping tournaments,” said Barty, the youngest player at Zhuhai. “We sort of smashed a few of the goals quite early.”

However, the Australian did not always find things so easy and only came back to the sport last year after a spell with the Brisbane Heat cricket team — a deliberate move to take a break from tennis.

For Barty, who made her Grand Slam debut at the Australian Open at age 15, the demands of the tour were too much to handle.

“2014 was a really tough year for me and I just needed to mentally just get away from tennis and be a normal sort of 17-18 year-old girl,” she said. “I didn’t know how long the break would be, if I would come back to tennis, if I wouldn’t.”

Cricket turned out to be a welcome distraction and a chance to meet some “cool chicks” outside of tennis.

However, prior to her stint with the Brisbane Heat, Barty said that cricket was not even on her radar.

“I’d always mucked around playing backyard cricket... but had never had a lesson or anything like that, so it was a completely new experience for me, a new challenge,” she said.

Since her return to the tennis world, Barty has not looked back.

She dazzled at the Wuhan Open — seeing off former world No. 1 Karolina Pliskova, Britain’s Johanna Konta and French Open winner Jelena Ostapenko — to sail into her first ever Premier 5 tournament final.

She also overtook Daria Gavrilova to become Australia’s highest ranked player, which will no doubt put her in the spotlight at the Australian Open in January next year.

Although Barty ultimately fell to Caroline Garcia in Wuhan, the tournament marked a turning point, or in her words, “a hell of a week.”

“Probably since Wuhan it’s been a bit of a change for me to play four or five, six really good matches in a row against quality opponents and really feel comfortable on the court,” she told a news conference earlier in the week.

As for next year, Barty wants to focus on consolidating her spot in the top 20, with the goal of reaching a second week of a Grand Slam in singles.

Even as she warned against looking too far ahead, she could not rule out her chances of winning.

“You have to take it match by match and it’s two grueling weeks of tennis, [but] if we do all the right preparations there’s no reason why I can’t,” she said.

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