In the latest installment of the Rising stars of tennis series, Ashleigh Barty explains her journey from tennis to cricket and back to tennis
Dame Sarah Storey, Rebecca Romero, Victoria Pendleton. The list of female sporting polymaths is an illustrious one.
Ashleigh Barty may not be a name as recognisable as those luminaries, but Australia's 20-year-old tennis player, and one-time cricketer, could soon be being mentioned alongside such exalted company.
Because Barty, after quitting tennis in 2014, played a season for Brisbane Heat in the inaugural Women's Big Bash League in 2015-16, scoring a six on her debut, before returning to tennis last year and promptly cracking the world's top 100 and winning her first WTA title in Malaysia earlier this month.
Barty, born and raised in Queensland, first drew the attention of the tennis world in 2011 when she won junior Wimbledon as a 15-year-old. Two years later, she enjoyed a stellar 12 months on the women's doubles circuit, reaching the final of three of the four grand slams in 2013 with partner and compatriot Casey Dellacqua.
The Aussie looked looked set to be one of the WTA's breakthrough acts, but in September 2014 an exhausted Barty announced she was taking an indefinite break from the sport, without elaborating on the reasons why. Reflecting on the decision, Barty says: "I needed some time to refresh mentally more than anything. It became a bit of a slog for me and I wasn’t enjoying my tennis as much as I would have liked to."
Barty continued playing tennis regularly, but soon after quitting the sport professionally she discovered something else to stimulate her: cricket.
Through a former physio who worked in cricket as well as tennis, Barty was introduced to the Brisbane Heat team, and was signed up after instantly making an impression as a batter with her strong arms and co-ordination. "It was a chance for me to meet other sportswoman and see what they do. They just invited me to a training session to test out a few basic skills and we went from there," she says.
Presumably Barty had at least played some decent-level cricket before? "I’d only ever mucked about in the back yard," she responds nonchalantly, not realising how amazing (and let's face it, slightly infuriating) this is for the vast majority of anyone who has ever tried to play cricket, or indeed any sport.
Barty enjoyed an encouraging Big Bash debut, hitting 39 off 27 balls, and although her form tailed off over the course of the season, she was revitalised by the experience.
"I loved it," she says. "It was amazing to meet other girls in different sports and talk to other people who didn’t know much about tennis and who didn’t have an interest in it.
"Just going out and playing and being part of a group, with no-one caring what I’d done before was perfect, it was exactly what I needed.
"I love the team sport element, which is why Fed Cup weeks are some of my favourite weeks of the year. When everyone comes together and works together as a team is fantastic, and such a rarity in tennis. It was really nice for me to go there and be part of a group, and not have the spotlight on me.
"Cricket is semi-pro for women in Australia but the girls work damn hard and it’s credit to them to try and grow the sport."
Barty, though, began to realise that the time had come for a return to tennis, and she started playing smaller events last May as she embarked on a comeback in the sport where she had originally made her name.
"It was never in mind that I’d retired as such," Barty says. "I just needed to take a break and it felt like a natural thing to come back and hit some balls. I’d been coaching and holding a racket pretty much everyday so I wasn’t completely out of practice."
After a promising summer grass-court season that included runs to the Eastbourne semi-finals and Nottingham quarters, Barty has kicked on this year and made a very promising start to 2017.
She progressed to the third round of January's Australian Open (her best ever result at a slam) and reached the same stage in Hobart, following a spirited three-set loss to world No 1 Angelique Kerber in the second round of the Brisbane International.
Then earlier this month Barty broke into the world's top 100 for the first time, and won her first ever WTA event at the Malaysia Open, despite having to qualify for the tournament. A magical week in Kuala Lumpur was topped for Barty by also scooping up the doubles title with Dellacqua - an experience she describes as "phenomenal".
Barty, currently ranked 91, says of her playing style: "I’ve always wanted to be my own player from the start and do things a bit differently to what the others do. I want to play my own way.
"I don’t watch much tennis, never really have."
Next up for Barty is the Miami Open, where she will be competing in both the singles and doubles, as is her wont. A diminutive figure at 5ft 5in, Barty generates plenty of power on the forehand side, and her all-court game, full of spin and slice, makes her an awkward opponent on both the singles and doubles court.
She insists she will keep playing both disciplines, but her immediate focus is her first-round singles match against Canada's Eugenie Bouchard on Wednesday.
"I’ll give it a red hot crack and try and put myself in a position to win and play some clean tennis," she says.
"I’ve been back in tennis for a year and I’m certainly ready. Actually I was back and ready after two or three tournaments. I’m back in the tennis world and have no issues."
Cricket's loss may well end up being tennis's gain.