PARIS, France - At the start of the clay season, 23-year-old Ashleigh Barty had just one simple goal.
“I said to my team, I was just worried about falling over,” Barty said with a grin, speaking to press on the last day of the French Open. “And I can successfully say that we got to the end of the clay court season and I did not fall over once!”
Barty did much more than just ‘not fall over’ during her two weeks in Paris. Instead, she stood tall - despite her 5’7” stature - and she defied the odds to claim her maiden Grand Slam title at Roland Garros, defeating Marketa Vondrousova 6-1, 6-3 in the championship match.
“This is just incredible,” she said. “I never dreamt that I'd be sitting here with this trophy here at the French Open. I mean, obviously we have dreams and goals as children, but this is incredible.”
It was an understandably surprising result, even for Barty herself: despite her recent strong results, clay has been far from Aussie’s favorite surface. In fact, last year in Charleston she famously said, “Every week on clay is a week closer to grass.”
But the signs were all there. After claiming her first Premier Mandatory title in Miami - then the biggest title of her career - she put in a solid few weeks of French Open tune-up, reaching the quarterfinals in Madrid and winning the Rome title in doubles with Victoria Azarenka.
In Rome, Barty suffered a disappointing singles defeat to Kristina Mladenovic, falling in the second round in a meek straights sets, 6-2, 6-3. Barty admitted that this loss lingered in her mind - and sparked the flame for her impressive surge in Paris.
“I think probably that match in Rome was the only match of the whole year that I felt like I walked off the court and I was a little bit disappointed with how I played and how I was out there,” she said. Instead of dwelling on the result, Barty explained, she took to the doubles court with Azarenka.
Playing those extra matches and re-centering was exactly what Barty needed, bringing her back to her giant-slaying game. “Then it was about managing my body and making sure that I was as fit as possible to come here and enjoy it and play well,” she added, referring to the right arm injury that kept her out of Strasbourg.
Coming into Paris, Barty had won just two main draw matches in all of her previous French Open appearances. She had to battle against strong competition en route to the championship, defeating Danielle Collins and Andrea Petkovic in the opening rounds, battle past Sofia Kenin - author of the stunning Serena Williams upset - and Madison Keys, who had lifted the trophy in Charleston earlier this season, and then navigate past two on-the-rise youngsters, Amanda Anisimova and Czech lefty Vondrousova in the final.
Photo gallery: Barty crowned champion in Paris
“For the last fortnight, the stars have aligned for me,” Barty said. “I have been able to play really good tennis when I've needed it… I think any time I can play my brand of tennis, I know that I can match it against the best in the world.”
She added, “I'm learning more and more every single time that I play, learning how to use my variety and use it as best I can. It's just been an amazing two weeks.”
To really appreciate Barty’s rise, one has to go back more than two weeks: three years ago in 2016, Barty was pondering a return to tennis after having walked away from the game as a teenager struggling with homesickness. During her tennis sabbatical, she took up professional cricket in an effort to live a normal life.
Could she have been able to stand firm at Roland Garros, had she not walked away?
“Absolutely not,” Barty said, bluntly. “I don't even know if I'd be sitting here talking to you if I was playing tennis if I didn't step away. It's obviously a part of my life that I needed to deal with, and I feel like it was the best decision that I made at the time, and it was an even better one coming back.
“I never closed any doors, saying, ‘I'm never playing tennis again’… I think I needed time to grow as a person, to mature.
“I think a new perspective in my life and in my career, it's brought this new belief, I suppose, and this feeling of belonging at the very top level. I feel like I'm playing some really good tennis. I know when I play my best tennis, I can match it against the world's best.”
Since her return to the sport, Barty has been open on her efforts to stay healthy mentally as well as physically, and she had plenty of advice to share for her young final opponent, Vondrousova, who at 19 years old is just one year older than Barty was when she chose to stop playing.
“Tennis is a very unique sport, that it can happen very quickly and when a lot of girls and guys are at a very young age,” she mused. “I mean, you can play professionally when you're 13 or 14, I think, officially.
“So I think, you know, it's about creating your own path, creating your own journey, and embracing it… I think the best thing to do is learn from your mistakes, learn from every single experience that you have, whether it's good or bad. That's the only way to go about it, only way to grow as a person and as a player.
“We've got a pretty amazing world that we live in in the tennis world. It's remarkable. We come to beautiful cities and play in front of thousands of people who generally love this sport. And for us, it's about going out there and trying to entertain those people and trying to fulfill our dreams.”