MELBOURNE, Australia — In a world where players barely have enough time to call one place home, Ash Barty is an outspoken Australian champion. She has said so herself, she is a ‘recluse’ and has avoided Australia’s recent COVID-19 spike at home in Queensland.
“A good book and a cup of coffee, and I’m done,” she said after her second round win at the Australian Open.
She’s the favorite to win the lottery at her home Slam, but there’s not much fanfare about her – neither here nor outside of Australia, at least not yet.
For many overseas tennis fans and media alike, Barty is not the story of every Grand Slam and despite having been at the top of the rankings for one of the longest since Serena Williams dominated the scene. The spotlight is often on Naomi Osaka, 13th seeded at the Australian Open and Barty’s likely fourth-round match-up (as long as both Barty and Osaka take care of their third-round opponents, Camila Giorgi and Amanda Anisimova, respectively).
There’s a perception that some still see Barty as a transition number 1, one who takes over the mantle as the next dominant force gets ready. After all, her rise to the slot somewhat coincided with a vacuum of old school, raw star power in the female game. The Williams sisters — not in Melbourne this time — are in the twilight of their careers and will follow some of the game’s big names into the sunset.
But Barty has been the world’s No. 1 in this decade for 88 weeks so far. In two years, that’s a longer reign than all but Serena Williams (236 weeks) in the 2010s (Caroline Wozniacki was #1 for 71 weeks), and all but Justine Henin (117 weeks) during the 2000s. Admittedly, there was a hold on the rankings for a while as the COVID-19 pandemic forced the cancellation of many events, but it’s an impressive run in everyone’s books.
The title of world number 1 may refer to tennis, but it is the concept of a ‘global number 1’ that keeps the tennis world going. Tennis fans and journalists alike have struggled to find the next headliner to replace Serena Williams — and, to a lesser extent, more recently, her sister Venus. A star on the pitch, someone who would be an attraction to the sport around which the Tour, the Slams and hundreds of tennis professionals would revolve.
Osaka is almost that talismanic figure. But intense scrutiny, anticipation, and media scrutiny into the Japanese four-time big winner has sometimes proved too much, especially for an introverted person who, for the most part, wants very little to do with the classic journalistic cut-and-thrust.
US media has been clamoring for their next local hope. They pinned their hopes on Sloane Stephens, who won the 2017 US Open but did not fall out of the top 20 two years later. More recently, Coco Gauff took the stage as a 15-year-old when she reached the fourth round at Wimbledon in 2019 and the third round at the US Open.
Overseas tennis writers recognize the bizarre vacuum of exposure in which Barty exists. She may be “easily the best tennis player in the world right now,” but she’s “not flashy.” She is “guarded” and does not reveal much about herself to the public. It’s said her agents aren’t “sharks” like some in the business, and maybe that’s why she’s often covered up.
Look at Britain, where Emma Raducanu was launched to superstardom after winning the US Open 2021. In the weeks and months that followed, the 19-year-old starred at the Met Gala in New York, was invited to the world premiere of the latest James Bond film, he was awarded The Most Excellent Order of the British Empire (MBE) and has signed endorsement deals with exclusive brands such as Tiffany and Co., Dior, Evian and British Airways.
Raducanu may be as British as fish and chips, with a Romanian father and a Chinese mother, but she is certainly a global player in a global game.
Of course, the British media tends to cherish emerging tennis talent like sharks; just ask junior Wimbledon winner Laura Robson, or, further back, Tim Henman about the pressures British players face when success is within reach.
In Australia it is exactly the other way around. In terms of volume and column inches, Australian stores have been overlooking the guilt of Barty for another story, or another hero, and maybe even take her success for granted.
Nick Kyrgios, who is 115th in the world and who has only been 13 years old, fills more columns than Barty at any Australian Open. The same goes for Sam Stosur’s unfair turn from Grand Slam champion to “well she lost again”.
As a nation, Australians have become accustomed to seeing divisive figures poke their opponents, tease viewers and smash a racket. They seem to crave the indignation and disappointment as much as they crave the quiet success.
Barty storming through a second round Australian Open match in just over an hour is no small feat. Kyrgios, telling an audience member to shut up as he serves his way to a four-set loss under his arms, is.
And the media knows that. Looking only at their first-round matches (which is admittedly a small sample), another prominent Australian sports media company’s tennis page has seven separate articles about Kyrgios from the past in the 48 hours surrounding the match, but only two on Bartje . There’s a reason for that, and it’s traffic numbers, as the clicks come in for “tweener” dinnerware, “SIUU” parties, and beer-soaked selfies. And we are all guilty of exploiting that rich vein at times.
That’s not to say there isn’t strong support for Barty. Her Wimbledon win, taken not long after midnight on a Sunday morning last July, brought 1.85 million people to listen to the TV coverage. At the time, over a weekend, it’s a song almost unheard of in Australian sport, and it was a real milestone moment. Indeed, Barty finished 2021 at the top of ESPN’s own Aussie Power Rankings, which was her excellence at the top of an unforgiving international sport.
It’s hard to put your finger on why the Australian doesn’t get the same breakthrough abroad. She is popular and very nice – no doubt about that. But her popularity doesn’t cut through that other world stars like Novak Djokovic, Serena Williams or Roger Federer have had.
Is it because Barty is measured to the bone – on the field and off? She doesn’t get overly emotional after a win or a loss. Her press conferences are quintessentially Australian – much to the chagrin of the international members of the media who cover Barty full-time on the tour. She comes into action with a straight bat, a thoughtful response and a half smile.
Unlike some of her compatriots, there are no surprises – no hand grenades are expected when Barty speaks to the media.
Also, her social media presence is curated to perfection (though that’s not unique to Barty among tennis players), in the sense that we rarely get a glimpse of her actual life. Her Instagram consists almost exclusively of professional photos and sponsorship posts with the hashtag #ad attached.
Even her sponsors and messages of support have a distinctly local vibe – and exactly what you’d expect from Barty. She is the human embodiment of a Happy Little Vegemite. For all we know she could have been the Banana Boat kid.
In short, she’s a classic Australian first, and a world ranking second, and it’s a perception that extends beyond these shores.
She is an Ipswich girl who is building a family home in the suburbs. She doesn’t live in Monte Carlo or the Bahamas—beautiful places that also happen to be generous tax havens. She does very normal grocery shopping like the rest of us, and, really, for a world No. 1 at the top of her game, she seems to live a very normal, albeit anonymous, life.
The kicker is that Barty doesn’t have to change. She does exactly what she wants to do. She’s a two-time Grand Slam champion, handling her affairs methodically and efficiently — and sometimes she wants to eat Vegemite on toast (at least, according to her Instagram) and watch the Tigers — beer in hand — at the Gabba.
Barty is on track to face Naomi Osaka in the fourth round. Ash may be the number 1 in the world, Osaka is the worldwide number 1; she’s Japanese, but is just as popular in America and beyond. She has 2.8 million Instagram followers, which makes Barty’s 380,000 look meager in comparison.
Inevitably, the spotlight may be on the 13th seed everywhere except Australia, rather than the woman who has been the world’s No. 1 for over two years.
And given what we see and hear from Barty, the self-proclaimed “recluse” who is content with a cup of coffee and a good novel during COVID, isn’t that exactly how she wants it?