MELBOURNE, Australia — In a world where players barely have enough time to call one place home, Ash Barty is a decidedly Australian champion. She has said it herself, she’s a “hermit,” and has been avoiding the recent COVID-19 spike in Australia at home in Queensland.
“A good book and a coffee, and I’m set,” she said following her second-round win at the Australian Open.
She’s the favourite to win the lot at her home Slam, yet there’s not a massive amount of fanfare about her — neither here nor outside of Australia, at least, not just yet.
To many overseas tennis fans and media outlets, Barty isn’t the story of every Grand Slam and hasn’t been despite one of the longest stays at the top of the rankings since Serena Williams dominated the scene. The spotlight is often on Naomi Osaka, the 13th seed at the Australian Open and Barty’s likely fourth-round matchup (so 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 transitional No. 1, someone who takes the mantle while the next dominant force gets ready. After all, her rise into the slot has coincided somewhat with a vacuum of old school, raw star power in the women’s game. The Williams sisters — not in Melbourne this time around — are in the twilight of their careers, and will follow some big names of the game into the sunset.
But Barty has been world No. 1 for 88 weeks in this decade thus far. In two and a bit years, that’s a longer reign than all but Serena Williams (236 weeks) in the 2010s (Caroline Wozniacki was No. 1 for 71 weeks), and all but Justine Henin (117 weeks) throughout the 2000s. Admittedly, there was a hold on rankings for some time when the COVID-19 pandemic forced the cancellation of many events, but it’s an impressive run in anyone’s books.
The title of world No. 1 might refer to the tennis, but really, it’s the concept of a “global No. 1” that keeps the tennis world turning. Tennis fans and journalists alike have been scrambling to find the next headline star to replace Serena Williams — and, to a lesser extent more recently, her sister Venus. A star on the court, someone who would provide a gravitational presence to the sport around which the tour, the Slams and hundreds of tennis professionals would orbit.
Osaka is close to being that talismanic figure. But intense scrutiny, expectation and media probing of the Japanese four-time major winner has proved too much at times, especially for an introvert who, for the most part, wants very little to do with the classic journalistic cut-and-thrust.
American media have clamoured for their next local hope. They pinned their hopes on Sloane Stephens, who won the 2017 US Open but fell out of the top 20 not two years later. More recently, there has been Coco Gauff, who stormed onto the scene as a 15-year-old when she made the fourth round at Wimbledon and the third round at the US Open in 2019.
Overseas tennis writers recognise the bizarre vacuum of exposure that Barty exists in. She might be “easily the best tennis player in the world” right now, but she “isn’t flashy.” She’s “guarded” and doesn’t reveal a lot about herself to the public. Her agents are said to not be “sharks” like some in the business, and maybe that’s why she tends to be glossed over.
Look to Great Britain, where Emma Raducanu was launched into superstardom after winning the 2021 US Open. In the weeks and months following, the 19-year-old was the star of the Met Gala in New York, was invited to the global premiere of the latest James Bond flick, was awarded The Most Excellent Order of the British Empire (MBE) and has signed endorsement deals with exclusive brands like 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’s very definitely a global player in a global game.
Of course, British media have a tendency to swarm to emerging tennis talent like sharks to chum; just ask junior Wimbledon winner Laura Robson, or, going further back, Tim Henman about the pressures British players tend to face when success is within grasp.
It’s the opposite in Australia. In terms of volume and column inches, Australian outlets are guilty of overlooking Barty for another story, or another hero, maybe even taking her success for granted.
Nick Kyrgios, ranked 115th in the world and who has only ever been as high as No. 13, fills more column inches every Australian Open than Barty. So does Sam Stosur’s unfair heel-turn from Grand Slam champion to “well, she lost again.”
As a nation, Australians have become accustomed to watching divisive figures prod their opponents, tease the viewers and smash a racquet. They seem to crave the outrage and disappointment as much as the quiet success.
Barty storming through a second-round Australian Open match in just over an hour isn’t a watercooler conversation. Kyrgios, telling a crowd member to shut up as he serves underhand on his way to a four-set loss, is.
And media outlets know this. Looking just at their first-round matches (which is, admittedly, a small sample size), another prominent Australian sports media company’s tennis page has seven separate written items on Kyrgios in the 48 hours around the match, but just two on Barty. There’s a reason for this, and it does involve traffic numbers, as the clicks roll in for “tweener” serves, “SIUU” celebrations and beer-soaked selfies. And we’re all guilty of mining that rich vein from time to time.
That’s not to say there isn’t strong support for Barty. Her Wimbledon victory, achieved not long after midnight on a Sunday morning last July, saw 1.85 million people tuned in to the TV coverage. At that time, on a weekend, it’s a number that is almost unheard of in Australian sport, and was a true milestone moment. Indeed, Barty ended 2021 top of ESPN’s own Aussie Power Rankings, such has been her excellence at the top of a ruthless international sport.
It’s hard to put a finger on why the Australian doesn’t get the same cut-through overseas. She’s popular and very likable — there’s no doubt about it. But her popularity doesn’t bring with it cut-through that other world No. 1s such as Novak Djokovic, Serena Williams or Roger Federer have had.
Is it because Barty is measured to a tee — on the court and off it? She doesn’t get overly emotional after a win or a loss. Her news conferences are typically Australian — much to the chagrin of those international members of the media who cover Barty on the tour full time. She comes into press with a straight bat, a thoughtful response and half a laugh.
Unlike some of her compatriots, there are no surprises — no hand grenades expected when Barty speaks to the media.
Her social media presence, too, is curated to perfection (though that’s not unique to Barty among tennis players), in that we rarely get a glimpse into her actual life. Her Instagram is almost exclusively made up of professional photos and sponsorship posts with the hashtag #ad attached.
Even her sponsors and endorsements have a distinctly local vibe about them — and exactly what you’d expect of Barty. She is the human embodiment of a Happy Little Vegemite. She could have been the Banana Boat kid for all we know.
Boiling it down, she’s a classic Australian first and foremost, and a world No. 1 second, and it’s a perception that extends beyond these shores.
She’s a girl from Ipswich who’s building a family home in the suburbs. She doesn’t live in Monte Carlo, or the Bahamas — lovely places that just happen to also be generous tax havens. She does very normal shopping at the supermarket like the rest of us, and, really, for a world No. 1 at the top of her game, seems to live a very normal, if anonymous, life.
The kicker is that Barty doesn’t need to change. She’s doing exactly what she sets out to do. She’s a two-time Grand Slam champion who goes about her business methodically and efficiently — and she sometimes 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 meet Naomi Osaka in the fourth round. Ash might be the world No. 1, but Osaka is the global No. 1; she’s Japanese but is as popular in America and beyond. She has 2.8 million Instagram followers, making Barty’s 380,000 look meagre in comparison.
It’s inevitable that perhaps everywhere but Australia, the spotlight will swing onto the 13th seed instead of the woman who has been world No. 1 for more than two years.
And given what we see and hear from Barty, the self-described “hermit” who’s content bunkering down during COVID with a coffee and a good novel, isn’t that just how she wants it?