No. 1-ranked Ashleigh Barty has ‘no regrets’ about unusual 2020 sabbatical

    Matt Walsh is a Melbourne-based sports journalist who willingly travels far and wide to watch any sport. Not only has he seen NFL in Dallas, football in London, baseball in Arlington and hockey in Boston, he’s covered F1, AFL, Wimbledon and the Australian Open for a number of media outlets.

It’s bizarre to think the world No. 1 player entering the year’s first Grand Slam hadn’t played a competitive match in almost 11 months before last week, but these are strange times.

While many others were following a considerably pared-down WTA tour around the world last year, Ashleigh Barty made a decision in February 2020 to remain at home partly because the COVID-19 pandemic was getting out of control in other parts of the world, and also because her coach Craig Tyzzer was locked down in Melbourne while the rest of Australia was, for the most part, coronavirus-free.

Barty opens her 2021 Australian Open campaign on Rod Laver Arena against Montenegro’s Danka Kovinic on Tuesday at 3 a.m. ET (ESPN2/ESPN App). But with her ranking protected despite not defending her 2019 French Open crown, Barty spent a year at home in Queensland, on a sabbatical of sorts that led her to explore life outside of tennis.

Barty is a former professional cricketer, having played T20 with the Brisbane Heat in 2015. During the height of the pandemic, she also showed the world just how handy she is at golf. While her fellow competitors would have been flying from the rescheduled French Open to the United States for the 2020 US Open, Barty was winning the Brookwater Golf Club’s women’s championship in Queensland.

And if her genuine and wide-ranging passion for a number of sports wasn’t already clear, in October, Barty was spotted in the crowd of an Australian Football League preliminary final played between her beloved Richmond Tigers and the Brisbane Lions.

With a beer in hand, Barty flashed onto TV screens on more than one occasion leaping out of her seat, fist-pumping for every Tigers goal. Barty was asked to present the AFL’s premiership cup to the Tigers upon their Grand Final victory.

“Everyone has been in a very different, unique situation, depending on what country they’re in, even what state here in Australia,” Barty said following her Summer Series win at the Yarra Valley Classic, which was her return to the court.

“I feel very fortunate to have had the year that I have had. Certainly none of my decisions have any regret. I made the right decisions for the right reasons. I enjoyed my time at home this year. There was nothing but positive vibes and good feelings coming out of the whole year for me.

“Now I’m really happy to be back playing tennis with an opportunity to play in front of a crowd here at the Australian Open. It’s really special.”

While Barty, 24, was without her coach for parts of the year due to Melbourne’s severe lockdowns, she said she was constantly working on her tennis so that she could hit the ground running when the Australian summer commenced.

“Yeah, there was a checklist [of things I wanted to do]. Obviously, we want to stick to our processes and get the right things in place, try and do the right things right from the get-go,” Barty said. “I feel we were able to do that.

“[I was] happy with the progression of the level of tennis through the week. There’s always a little bit of the unknown. I certainly get confidence from the work that I do off the court during preseason with my team — not necessarily hit the panic button if we don’t get a win straight away.

“I think, for us, it’s doing the work, sticking to our processes and sticking to our routines that we know work. They’re not always going to bring the results. If you go about it the right way, make the right decisions for the right reasons, you know you’re putting yourself in good stead.”

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