MELBOURNE, Australia - Ash Barty is ready to make her return to tennis. After announcing her plans to step away from the sport seventeen months ago, the 19-year-old Australian has found her passion rekindled and the freshness she needed to return to the game she so desperately loves.
A Junior Wimbledon champion at the age of 15, Barty quickly became a three-time Grand Slam finalist alongside her compatriot Casey Dellacqua. Barty and Dellacqua put together a stunning 2013 season, making the finals at the Australian Open, Wimbledon, and the US Open. She reached a career-high doubles ranking of No.12 just two years after being the No.2 junior. And those weren't even her favorite memory of her teenage years. Barty's favorite moment?
"Winning my first Fed Cup live rubber against Switzerland," she told WTA Insider via phone from Brisbane. "There's nothing quite like playing for Australia. That was a pretty phenomenal feeling. That's close to the three finals with Casey or winning junior Wimbledon. But I think playing for Australia is the cream of the crop and that was pretty special."
Junior champion. Grand Slam finals. Fed Cup winner. All before she was 18. It all came fast. Too fast.
"It was obviously phenomenal, but it all happened a little bit too quickly," Barty said. "I went from not being known anywhere in the world to winning junior Wimbledon and six months later playing the Australian Open. I was a victim of my own success, really. We had plans to play in those tournaments, not expecting those results. If you win the Wildcard Playoff you can't really say, 'Oh, I actually don't want the wildcard.'
"Obviously I was very young, but I turn 20 this year and it's a different perspective on life and tennis in general. I'll be able to do it my way a little bit more. If it works, great. If it doesn't, I can't really complain. I've had a phenomenal career for the short time that I did play. I'm just prepared to work up that slow grind up the ITFs and hopefully be up with the WTA soon."
This time there will be no shortcuts to success.
"I could have taken a protected ranking and walked in there next week but that's not really what I want. I'm starting fresh and I can go through the process a little bit better this time and get it a little bit more suitable for me."
Barty's decision to step away from a promising young career at just 17-years-old stunned many. She had a top-notch doubles career and though her singles career followed a more gradual and expected path, she was consistently improving. She toiled away on the ITF circuit and battled - more successfully than not - through qualifying to earn her spot in the main draw.
"I love the sport of tennis, but I sort of got a little bit away from what I really wanted to do. It became robotic for me and that's not what I wanted. It's such an amazing sport and I just really wanted to enjoy it and I lost that enjoyment and that passion.
"I think deep down I knew if I kept trying to drive on through it, it would drive me away completely. So it was the right time to step away and just refresh.
"I had done it previously, in smaller stints. A few weeks here or there. But this time I knew I needed a little more time and didn't put a time limit on it. It just so happens to be that 16, 17 months later, I'm refreshed and ready to go again."
Aside from having the Australian Open running in the background last year, Barty paid little attention to what was happening on tour during her time away. Instead, being the preternaturally talented teen that she is, she turned to cricket. In October, Barty signed on to play professional cricket with the Brisbane Heat in the inaugural Women's Big Bash league.
"It was an unbelievable opportunity to completely do something really different. The support and everything I got from cricket was phenomenal. Having that competitive edge brought me back into that aspect of tennis, as well, getting out there and competing and sharing it with other people.
"It was just nice to refresh and do something different."
So at just 19 years old, Ash Barty had already played two sports professionally - a tribute to her natural athletic ability, phenomenal hand/eye coordination, and feel. But when push came to shove, only one sport proved to be her true calling.
"Tennis in the end, it just makes sense to me."
Nothing specific triggered Barty's decision to give tennis another go. There was no lightbulb moment or moment of clarity. She said the decision was a gradual and natural process, one that began when she flew down to Melbourne for last month's Australian Open and hit with a few promising young players at Melbourne Park. On a trip up to Sydney, she visited Dellacqua and had a hit as well. With each hit her level improved and Barty began to feel the hunger to compete once again.
"After I hit a few times throughout the time away, I hit the ball ok each time . I realized after hitting a few times it was just what I'm probably meant to be doing in life."
That nonchalant attitude about, what she calls "Tennis 2.0", was borne out of a newfound perspective on life and the sport. She is ready to get back to doing the hard work, playing the matches, and competing. And should that spotlight come circling back, she feels better equipped to handle it today.
"I'm prepared to commit myself fully to getting back into tennis. That's the only way to do it, and that's why I'm taking it slowly in the beginning. There's no point in jumping back on tour and realizing six months later that this is not what I want. This gives me the opportunity to work my way into it.
"Second time around you really do learn a lot from the first time and already I'm able to sit down and take a different perspective."
For the time being, Barty will work alone, with an eye towards hitting as many balls as her body will allow.
"I know my game back to front and I know what I need to work on. Right now it's about volume, hitting a lot of tennis balls again. So I'll just go by myself for the first couple of months and use a few mates, and I suppose once I get into it a little bit I'll have discussions with Tennis Australia about what we're going to do moving forward and we'll see how we go."
Playing doubles in a $25,000 ITF Challenger tournament this week in Perth, Barty is keeping expectations in check as she kicks off her comeback. Ash is perfectly fine with that; it's not like Australia is exactly starved of top players right now.
"We're in a really exciting period in Australian tennis. We have Sam Stosur and Dash [Daria Gavrilova] leading from the front in singles and Casey's a world class doubles player, still Top 5 in the world. I'm just really excited to be back in the fold soon. Hopefully not too far away from being up with those girls.
"I just know deep down that I'm refreshed and ready to go again. I'm starting from scratch and that's no worries at all."
No worries at all? That hasn't always been the case for Ash Barty. It's heartening to think that may ring true once again.
Pretty pumped to be out hitting a few balls again! Can't wait to kickstart in Perth over the next fortnight????#2.0 pic.twitter.com/94weIwYErG
? Ash Barty (@ashbar96) February 8, 2016
All photos courtesy of Getty Images.