When Ashleigh Barty made her return to tennis in 2016, even the most ardent Aussie fans couldn’t have predicted her meteoric rise into the Top 20 less than a year later.
After walking away from the sport as a teenager, Barty returned to tennis last year in May with no ranking and a long road ahead. Fast forward another 20 months and Barty finished the 2017 season with her first WTA title and four Top 10 wins under her belt, and now, at World No.17, sits as the highest-ranked Australian player - male or female.
Here are 11 reasons why Ashleigh Barty will be one to watch in 2018:
1. Barty’s been on every tennis fan’s radar for a while, and now she’s finally coming into her own.
The Aussie player might be just 21 and coming off a breakthrough season, but the signs have been there for a while. Tennis fans might remember back in 2013 when Barty reached three Grand Slam finals in doubles (Australian Open, Wimbledon, US Open) alongside partner Casey Dellacqua, and was singled out by wtatennis.com as a Young Gun to watch.
"I try to be an all-court player," Barty said in a 2013 interview with wtatennis.com. "I like to use variety, use the slice and mix things up a little with a few droppies as well. I think my strength would be having the ability to have this variety and playing shots that other girls may not know how to play or have in their repertoire, I suppose."
This strategy has stayed the same - variety remains a cornerstone of Barty’s game - even if a lot else changed for the Australian since then.
2. She won her first career title in Kuala Lumpur.
After entering Kuala Lumpur as a qualifier, the Australian stunned the field with her run to the title in singles and doubles - her maiden WTA-level singles title.
"I think it's been a success for us, the start [of 2017], more successful than we thought," she said after the match.
"It's a tribute to all the work we did in the offseason, and last year, coming back. It hasn't quite been 12 months since I started playing singles again. I'm certainly happy to be back."
3. And she proved she was no flash in the pan.
Barty went on to back up her big result with even more big results. She reached the final at Birmingham and Wuhan - the latter being her biggest singles result to date.
Proving she could bring her best week after week, Barty also reached the quarterfinals at Strasbourg from qualifying, quarterfinals at Nottingham, recorded back-to-back round of 16 appearances in Cincinnati and Toronto from qualifying and reached the semifinals at the Hengqin Life WTA Elite Trophy Zhuhai.
4. Barty defeated four Top 10 players in 2017 - most of these victories coming in Wuhan.
She claimed victories over a number of big names this season, including her first ever Top 10 victory over Venus Williams in the second round of Cincinnati. But she didn’t stop there - this year alone Barty has defeated Garbine Muguruza, who would go on to win Wimbledon, reigning French Open champion Jelena Ostapenko, former World No.1s Angelique Kerber and Karolina Pliskova, as well as Johanna Konta, Elena Vesnina and Agnieszka Radwanska.
A trio of Top 10 wins - over Konta, Pliskova and Ostapenko - were the cherry on top of an incredible week in Wuhan, which saw Barty rocket into the final of a Premier 5 tournament for the first time.
5. She started the season ranked No.271, and improved more than 200 spots to finish inside the Top 20 for the first time.
Barty’s season ended the same way it began - with a bang.
In February, she took home her first WTA title at Kuala Lumpur, propelling into the Top 100 for the first time. She rounded it out with her biggest singles result to date in Wuhan, a run to the Premier 5 event’s final after taking down Konta, Radwanska and Pliskova along the way.
6. Ranked at No.17, she’s currently Australia’s highest ranked tennis player - male or female...
US Open champion Sam Stosur held the crown of Australia’s No.1 player for nine years straight, but after a quiet season from the 33-year-old it finally changed hands for the first time since 2008.
Daria Gavrilova was the first to rise to the challenge, but after Barty’s big Wuhan run she ended the season at the top. Barty also leapfrogged ATP countryman Nick Kyrgios, ranked No.21, to stand alone as the highest-ranked Australian player,
7. ...but she’s poised to handle the heat at the top.
Will Barty be able to handle the pressure and hang on to the top spot? Stosur thinks so.
"[Barty] is pretty level headed, pretty low key,” Stosur told the Australian Associated Press last week. “She doesn't get too over-excited about anything on the court and off as well.
“If she can handle it throughout the [Australian] summer and year, there's no reason she can't at least stay where she is and hopefully keep going.
“It's remarkable, given she hasn't been back for very long, to find herself in the Top 20 after just one full year on tour shows just how good a player she is and how good she can still be."
8. She’s one of the youngest in the Top 20...
Born on April 24, 1996, Barty is one of the youngest players in the Top 20 at just 21 years old. In fact, she’s the second-youngest; reigning French Open champion Jelena Ostapenko takes that distinction, at 20.
9. ...but she’s got more experience under her belt than the average 21-year-old.
In a revealing interview with The Age, Barty opened up about her return to the tour last season following a 20-month sabbatical and stint playing cricket in the Women's Big Bash League with the Brisbane Heat.
Feeling burnt out and depressed, Barty famously walked away from tennis at just 17 years old.
“I was so relieved,” Barty said of making the decision to quit the sport. “It was a weird time, but as soon as I got it off my chest I was so much better.”
She added, “Still, it wasn’t like I threw out all my racquets. Whether I’d stopped playing professionally at 17 – or if I stop at 35 – tennis will always be a part of my life. But I needed to separate myself completely.”
10. She’s focused on singles, but has seen major success in doubles as well…
In fact, some of Barty’s earliest success on the professional level came in doubles, with her and partner Dellacqua reaching three Grand Slam finals in 2013. This year, they made it four by finishing runners up at the French Open, which means they’ve now reached the final of every Grand Slam event.
Barty’s done well to juggle a full doubles schedule along with singles, too; the pair took home titles at Birmingham (where Barty reached the final in singles), Strasbourg (where Barty reached the quarterfinals) and Kuala Lumpur (where Barty won her first singles title).
The duo also qualified for the BNP Paribas WTA Finals Singapore presented by SC Global for the first time, as well as reached finals at Eastbourne and New Haven.
11. ...and she’s sticking with partner Casey Dellacqua.
Unlike most singles players who dabble in doubles, Barty has no plans to ditch the doubles circuit after seeing success in singles. And she’ll continue to compete alongside the same partner as always: fellow Aussie Casey Dellacqua.
“[Casey] is my best mate but I don’t think she quite understands how much of a massive impact she’s had on my on life,” Barty said earlier this month after receiving the prestigious Newcombe Medal. “Bringing me back into the sport to be honest, she started the ball rolling again to finish unfinished business in doubles.
“Case is my best friend, my mum on tour, my shoulder to cry on through many times and she helped me through my darkest days.”