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Ashleigh Barty, tennis burnout turned cricket player, comes back to win French Open

Ashleigh Barty needed just 70 minutes to defeat Marketa Vondrousova, 6-1, 6-3. (Srdjan Suki / EPA-EFE/Shutterstock)

by Liz Clarke in Paris

PARIS — The 2019 French Open heralded a new wave of women’s tennis players as a confident cohort of teens and young 20-somethings who had never reached the late stages of a major proclaimed themselves ready to contend for Grand Slam titles.

The steadiest among them, Australia’s Ashleigh Barty, wasn’t the hardest hitting or, at 5-foot-5, the most physically imposing. But she stood tallest in the end, needing just 70 minutes to rout 19-year-old Marketa Vondrousova of the Czech Republic, 6-1, 6-3, in Saturday’s final to claim the first Grand Slam title of her career.

And Barty did so with delightfully varied strokes that were fresh and forward-looking while owing a debt to the Australian greats who had inspired her, seven-time Grand Slam champion Evonne Goolagong Cawley and Rod Laver, arguably the greatest champion of all, who made his way to Court Philippe Chatrier, at age 80, to congratulate Barty afterward.

All of Australia seemed to celebrate Barty’s triumph as the first Australian woman to win the French Open since Margaret Court in 1973.

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Barty, 23, drew even deeper satisfaction in becoming the first indigenous Australian to do so since Goolagong Cawley, who has long been her idol, nearly 50 years earlier. And she spoke afterward about how stirring it was, after being handed the silver Suzanne-Lenglen Cup, to see Goolagong Cawley’s name etched on it.

Social media erupted with kudos and congratulations from fellow tennis pros; her doubles partner, Victoria Azarenka; and retired players who have long known of her talent and potential despite abandoning competitive tennis three years after winning Wimbledon’s junior title at 15.

At that point, she was a teenage phenom. She was also burned out and bereft of joy.

After Barty’s rout Saturday, Australia’s Nick Kyrgios posted a photo of Barty as smiling, round-faced youngster holding a giant trophy, writing: “nothing changed! you were dominating juniors and now winning slams!”

Tweeted 2011 U.S. Open champion Samantha Stosur: “Massive CONGRATULATIONS….So happy and proud of you. Always knew you would achieve this incredible success…”

The victory will catapult Barty from the world’s eighth-ranked woman to No. 2, trailing only Naomi Osaka, 21, another youngster who exploded into the elite ranks of the sport in September, when she toppled 23-time Grand Slam champion Serena Williams to win the U.S. Open. Osaka followed with a second major at the Australian Open in January, but was ousted here in the third round.

Barty’s journey to Saturday’s trophy ceremony was atypical and instructive.

After rising to the top ranks of junior tennis, she quit competing in 2014, picked up a cricket bat and played professionally for the Brisbane Heat for nearly two seasons.

In time, she missed the one-on-one aspect of tennis, the wild swings of emotions packed in winning and losing.

“They are so unique,” she said, “and you can only get them when you're playing and when you put yourself out on the line and when you become vulnerable and try and do things that no one thinks of.”

It was humbling, entering her first pro tournament in nearly three years in June 2016, ranked a lowly 623.

Just one week of matches left her body feeling “shot.”

But she made remarkable strides and shortened her relearning curve by playing plenty of doubles.

Looking back, Barty said, there’s no way she would have won the French Open if she hadn’t taken a break from tennis.

“I needed time to step away, to live a normal life, because this tennis life certainly isn’t normal,” Barty said. “I needed time to grow as a person, to mature.”

Clay has always been her least favorite surface — even as recently as the six months ago. “At the start of the year, I was just worried about falling over,” Barty recalled, alluding to the slippery footing and sliding that clay demands.

Against Vondrousova, Barty was steady from the start, barreling to a 3-0 lead.

Because of the rain that bedeviled the tournament’s second week and dubious scheduling decisions by French Open officials scrambling to keep proceedings on track, neither Barty nor Vondrousova had played a match on 15,000-seat Court Philippe Chatrier.

Its vast dimensions seemed to throw off Vondrousova’s sense of space. Though considerably taller than the Barty, she planted herself several feet behind the baseline, making it almost impossible to assert herself in a meaningful way.

The games went by quickly, with Barty needing just 28 minutes to claim the opening set.

Barty is a powerful athlete, with a big serve (no woman served more aces than her 38 at this French Open), impressive speed and tenacious competitive spirit.

The speed served her well against Vondrousova, whose love of drop shots had gotten her far in the tournament. Those were less effective against Barty, who read her opponent’s intent and was on the move to the net before Vondrousova contacted the ball.

Barty had never previously advanced beyond the quarterfinals of a Grand Slam. Vondrousova had never won been past the fourth round.

But they are part of a new generation of female players brimming with self-assurance, confident they can hold their own against Williams, as 20-year-old Sofia Kenin did, ousting the three-time French Open champion in the third round. As for five-time Grand Slam champion Maria Sharapova, she’s not even on the radar of this new wave.

This year, for the first time in nearly a decade, two teenagers reached a Grand Slam semifinal: Vondrousova and 17-year-old American Amanda Anisimova, who pushed Barty to three sets.

At 23 and 19, Barty and Vondrousova represented the youngest Grand Slam final in 11 years, when 20-year-old Ana Ivanovic defeated 22-year-old Dinara Safina in the 2008 French Open.

By reaching the final, Vondrousova will jump from 38th in the world to the top 20.

“It’s going to be strange because I’m going to be seed at Grand Slams,” said Vondrousova, who praised Barty’s performance and thanked her, as well, for the lesson she gave her in what she needs to do to improve. “A lot of things [are] going to change now.”

Live updates from the match

By Ava Wallace in Washington

Final: Barty takes the trophy, 6-1, 6-3

Barty rolled through her teenage opponent to win her first Grand Slam singles title, a trophy that’ll join her 2018 U.S. Open doubles title (won with American CoCo Vandeweghe) and her 2011 Wimbledon junior championship.

Barty was ultra-consistent on serve and overpowered the left-handed Vondrousova in just 70 minutes. In both players’ first Grand Slam singles’ final, Barty looked unshakable throughout, showing both poise and the shot-making prowess she’s honed over years on the doubles court. She clinched the title with an overhead slam.

Second set: Vondrousova gains a foothold, Barty leads 4-2

A big service hold for Vondrousova in the second set to slightly cut into Barty’s commanding lead at 2-1 turned into a second hold, all of a sudden the Czech teenager looks like she’s got some fight in her. Vondrousova is starting to play more freely and hit the shots she’s best at, all the while pushing Barty into the corners a little bit more.

First set: Barty serves it out, 6-1

There was no wild swing of momentum in the first set today, unlike yesterday’s match when Barty gave up six straight games after taking a 5-0 lead. The Aussie closed out the first set against Vondrousova without much trouble, in just 28 minutes. Vondrousova looked to settle in somewhat late in the first, but Barty dictated points throughout. She’s played in Grand Slam doubles finals before, and that experience seems to be serving her well today. Vondrousova is sending far too many balls into the net.

First set: Barty takes a 4-0 lead

It’s past midnight in Barty’s native Queensland, Australia, but the 23-year-old has given fans back home a good reason to stay up. Barty looks more comfortable than her opponent playing on 15,000-seat Court Philippe Chatrier, where Vondrousova had never played before this final, and the Aussie needed less than 15 minutes to take the lead.

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