Young athletes need building blocks. They need moments they can look to, entrench in their memories, and file away as positive experiences they can draw upon for the future. Young athletes need to point to precise occasions in their careers when they encountered considerable stress at a great height, breathing thin air, and still managed to walk upright, not succumbing to their environment.
This is the climb an athlete makes. The climb is metaphorical, but the comparison to scaling a mountain is used for a reason. It does get harder to breathe near the top. So much is required of body and mind the higher one goes. The need to find clarity and harness the energies of this remarkable organism we have — arms, legs, feet, shoulders, hips, waist, knees, chest, neck, eyes, brain — becomes more acute.
The stakes are enormous. The athlete’s sense of place — where she stands relative to her peers — hangs in the balance.
Athletes need to know that when they climb, they can successfully perform certain actions. These are not original insights, but they need to be reinforced every time a new story emerges of an athlete getting closer to the top.
Such is the case of Ashleigh Barty, who will turn 23 this spring. She made her first major quarterfinal at this Australian Open, and the way she did it might be the detail of her tournament which gives her great confidence heading into the rest of her season.
Barty had a few points for a 5-0 third-set lead over Sharapova in a tense and theatrical match whose emotions were heightened by the agony and ecstasy of an Australian crowd trying to push Barty across the finish line. Barty missed those points for 5-0, and several minutes later, she was in danger of giving away the entirety of her 4-0 lead. Sharapova had 15-40 on Barty’s serve at *4-3.
The moment could have collapsed on Barty, or she could have responded to it.
She chose the latter scenario, saving both break points and holding for 5-3, then serving out the match in a multi-deuce game after having 40-15. Barty needed to endure several fluctuations of play, withstand a familiar Sharapova comeback, and handle the frustration of losing three match points to seal the win on match point No. 4.
It was messy, but Barty prevailed, much as Sharapova has done so many times over the years.
The bumpy road to a first major quarterfinal could be seen as a sign that Barty will similarly struggle in future moments of similar significance, but the process of learning how to be a strong closer in tennis — or any sport — is necessarily bumpy. Barty can derive great meaning from her fourth-round adventure, and it will be fascinating to see how this moment shapes her 2019 season.
We can’t know if Ash Barty has it made, or if this is an aberration. We will get to see her write her own answer and create her own story as this tennis year evolves.