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Ash Barty: powerfully unconventional

Matt Zemek

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Jimmie 48 Photography

The story of Ashleigh Barty and her triumphant 2019 tennis season just keeps getting better.

Premier Mandatory champion in Miami.

Major champion in Paris.

Now, World No. 1.

The past three months have catapulted Barty from “really solid top-10 player” to the very top of the mountain, complete with the major championship which marks truly elite players. She is at the top of the list of Wimbledon favorites. She seems poised to have a great career, though the future will write its own story and we don’t have to dive into speculation.

Today’s story is that Barty has achieved World No. 1, becoming the first Australian woman to earn that significant distinction since the great Evonne Goolagong, whose own victories and achievements filled the first 15 years of the Open Era.

When Goolagong’s career wound down, the Chris-Martina rivalry was taking off. Yes, it has been that long since an Australian ruled women’s tennis. That’s a pretty neat story — one of the four Grand Slam nations, with a rich tennis heritage, has once again produced a World No. 1 player.

This is pretty neat, too:

Increasing the global reach of tennis is helped by having World No. 1 players outside the main media footprints. Imagine a world in which Li Na had made No. 1, and imagine a world in which an Indian or Brazilian or Argentine player can reach that same summit.

Barty’s generosity and graciousness make her a great ambassador for tennis as World No. 1. That matters, too.

I could list several other elements of Barty’s identity which make this milestone so special. I will choose to focus on one: how unconventional this story is, in a positively powerful and affirming way.

Think about it: Barty’s road to World No. 1 is not a normal road.

How many other World No. 1 players ever tried their hand at another professional sport, thereby interrupting a young tennis career to pursue a different journey for a while? It is true that Barty didn’t win — in cricket — the equivalent of three straight NBA basketball championships, but she calls to mind one of the most iconic athletes the world has ever known.

The year was 1993. The Chicago Bulls had just won their third straight NBA title and were poised to continue dominating professional basketball.

Michael Jordan wanted to do something different.

He wanted to play baseball. He wanted to ride buses and go between small towns in the Southeastern United States. He wanted to make laundry-and-sandwich money — sure, he had tons of money and could afford the hit, but it was still an act of giving up a large chunk of change. He wanted to put on a different pair of shoes and live a different kind of life.

Did Michael Jordan become a great baseball player? No… but he would never be able to say that he didn’t give it a full go. He tried. He didn’t leave that box unchecked. He didn’t utter the words of regret many people know all too well: “What if?”

He came back to basketball a few years later and — in 1996 — was part of a Chicago team which went 72-10 in the regular season, the best record in NBA history until the 2016 Golden State Warriors went 73-9. Jordan won three more consecutive championships from 1996-1998.

He lived his dream AND returned to basketball, refreshed and able to dominate.

Now, Ash Barty has stepped away from tennis, come back to tennis, and — certainly over the past three months — dominated tennis.

It is unconventional… and greatly affirming to young people to see examples of athletes who are comfortable enough in their own skin to try something new and then also have the clarity to realize that their unexpected side route had run its course.

It is okay to explore. It is okay to return to a previous way of being. Be bold and open-minded. Also know your limitations and when life calls upon you to be responsible and aware of how you can maximize your potential.

There is such BALANCE in Ash Barty’s life journey, a pronounced ability to move in one direction at one point in time, and then move back in another direction when her exploratory period had taught her what she needed to know.

Young Australians, young women, young people everywhere, can learn from Ash Barty… much as some young people probably took something positive from Michael Jordan two decades ago.

Unconventional inspiration exists at the heart of Ashleigh Barty’s rise to World No. 1.

Aussie, Aussie, AWESOME.

Matt Zemek is the co-editor of Tennis With An Accent with Saqib Ali. Matt is the lead writer for the site and helps Saqib with the TWAA podcast, produced by Radio Influence at radioinfluence.com. Matt has written professionally about men's and women's tennis since 2014 for multiple outlets: Comeback Media, FanRagSports, and independently at Patreon, where he maintains a tennis site. You can reach Matt by e-mail: mzemek@hotmail.com. You can find him on Twitter at @mzemek.

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