PARIS, France - The first trip overseas that Ashleigh Barty ever took came as a 13-year-old. Of course it was to play tennis. And of course, as it turns out, it was to Paris.
The City of Lights was the site of the young Aussie's first experiences away from home and, for her, a scary glimpse at what life might be like as a full-time traveling professional tennis player. That life would prove too much for self-professed homebody, who would rather couch at home with her dogs than take a stroll along the Seine. And so, three years after winning junior Wimbledon as a 15-year-old and being anointed the future of Australian tennis, Barty walked away, not from the sport, but from the grind.
"I never closed any doors, saying, I'm never playing tennis again," Barty told reporters after winning her first major title at Roland Garros. "For me, I needed time to step away, to live a normal life, because this tennis life certainly isn't normal. I think I needed time to grow as a person, to mature.
"I left all of my options open. I think it was just a natural progression for me coming back to tennis."
Naturally, Barty did return to tennis. As it happens, it was three years ago that she boarded a plane with coach Craig Tyzzer to Eastbourne, England to play her first tournament - an ITF 50K - in nearly two years. Within a year, Barty was back into a major final, this time in doubles with her best friend and mentor Casey Dellacqua. The two had made three major finals together before Barty took her break, and now they were standing on Court Philippe Chatrier once again in hopes of finally winning Dellacqua a major title.
Paris would once again be the home to misery and heartbreak. Barty and Dellacqua were routed that day by Bethanie Mattek-Sands and Lucie Safarova, 6-2, 6-1. Dellacqua would retire less than a year later in April 2018.
"The final with Casey was absolutely gut-wrenching. It was," Barty said on the WTA Insider Podcast. "For us, we'd come full circle. We'd started again, we'd made it to the final and it was just taken out of our hands, I think."
Needless to say, Barty has exorcised the Parisian demons with her phenomenal run to the French Open title. She is the first Australian woman to win a major title since Samantha Stosur won the 2011 US Open, and the first to win Roland Garros since Margaret Court in 1973. On Monday, she will rise to No.2 in the rankings, the highest rank for an Australian woman since Evonne Goolagong Cawley in 1976.
Her triumph puts a perfect bow on what has been a steady but unstoppable rise as she built on her results from week to week. In her first full season back from her hiatus, Barty won her first WTA title in Kuala Lumpur. In her second full season, she won the then-biggest title of her career at the WTA Elite Trophy Zhuhai last November. Now, in her third, the 23-year-old has won her first Slam at Roland Garros, her first Premier Mandatory tournament at the Miami Open, made her Top 10 and Top 5 debut, and will sit less than 200 points behind No.1 Naomi Osaka for the top spot.
And that's with, arguably, her best surface coming around the corner: grass. Can Barty pull off "The Channel Slam" and become the first woman to win the French Open and Wimbledon back-to-back since Serena Williams in 2015?
"We will go back to work next week," Barty said on the WTA Insider Podcast. "We keep chipping away. It's a fresh slate. It's a clean start for the grass. And we'll just keep chipping away trying to do all the best things and to keep continuing to try and put ourselves in these positions because this is where we want to be."
Hear Barty's full interview on the WTA Insider Podcast below:
WTA Insider: What was it like once all the chaos ended and you could get back to the hotel, back to your team. What were the thoughts once it got quiet.
Barty: Yeah it was still pretty busy last night, to be honest. I mean once we got back to the hotel we went out to dinner pretty quickly and it was nice to just have the six or seven of us there. Going through some memories of the week, obviously in the last fortnight, but also just the journey that we've been on over the last few years. Just a really, really good group of people.
WTA Insider: What were the standout moments what are the memories, the very visceral ones, that you take with you as you leave Paris.
Barty: Different memories. Memories on and off the court. I think obviously the first time going deeper in singles, I had the feeling in doubles before, but some really tough matches and really special matches and some of my best tennis I've played in my career particularly in that quarterfinal match until the final yesterday. So it's some really, really special memories.
WTA Insider: In yesterday's final, as that match was getting going and you're starting to feel your game, at what point did you kind of feel like I got it, my game is flowing today.
Barty: Yeah I think right from the first game. Off the racquet the ball just felt clean, it felt easy. Coming off, I said to Tyz, I never felt like I've hit my backhand like that before. I felt like I served well and used the conditions as best I could to my advantage. Pretty tricky end to end, so I felt like I was really clear with how I wanted to try and use the wind.
It was just an incredible match and I think I have to watch it back to kind of remember some of the points because it's all very much a blur. I've seen the match point a few times now but yeah, I'd love to watch the whole match.
WTA Insider: When you were standing at the end of the platform during the trophy ceremony, which is a very unique thing here, they play the national anthem. Once the champions stand out there by themselves and the national anthem is playing and you're holding the trophy a lot can hit you. What were the thoughts as you stood there?
Barty: Yeah incredible. I kind of didn't know where to look. I wanted to look at my team but I didn't want to turn around. I was just thinking do I stand here with my eyes open or closed? I was just trying to really relive what's just happened.
Just a remarkable fortnight of tennis. The stars aligned. It was just a magical fortnight. It was just an incredible moment to hear the national anthem. That's something I love to hear on the tennis court. It's awesome for us Aussies. It's something that's really close to our hearts and really special for us. Just incredible.
WTA Insider: It takes a village. When you think back to Evonne Goolagong Cawley, Sam Stosur, Casey Dellacqua, Alicia Molik, all the women that have really taken you under their wings since when you were young, can you reflect on the team effort to kind of get you to where you got to yesterday?
Barty: The support has been incredible. It really has. Not just from the Australian public but from fans and people all over the world and then those that are close to me. Some of the messages that I received over the last 24 hours have been unbelievable. It was really nice.
We FaceTime'd Casey last night. It was really nice to chat to her and she's just such a massive part of my life and always will be. I wish she could have been here because she's such a massive part of my tennis career, but also my life off the court. It was really nice that we were able to share a little bit of the celebrations with her.
The group of people that I have around me are incredible. I love them, they're my family, they always will be. It's just pretty amazing that we get to share this tennis journey together.
WTA Insider: Yesterday in the press conference when people were asking you about the decision to take a break, you said well I never let it go, I never said I was never coming back. I just needed the break.
It feels like you never let tennis go and in the same way, the sport never let you go. We never forgot about you. Did you have that sense as well that when you were taking that time away that the sport was still waiting for you and hoping that you were gonna come back?
Barty: Yeah, I received a lot of love and support from a lot of the players which is extra special. When you get those kind messages from your peers and your colleagues it's really, really amazing. I had some really nice messages from quality human beings. Besides the fact that they're tennis players, they are really, really good people and I'm very lucky to be able to share a locker room with them, share the court with them when we play each other. The amount of support that I've received, it's been enormous.
WTA Insider: Your first international trip was here to Paris when you were 13 years old. You've now come full circle here in Paris, a very significant place for you in your tennis career. Can you reflect on the role that Paris has now played in your tennis career from being the first time that you stepped foot off of Australian soil to now being Roland Garros champion?
Barty: Yeah, it has come full circle. Really really crazy that was 10 years ago. Gave me goosebumps when I realized that and looked through some old photos. Wow, it's just incredible. But it will always be a very special place now in my heart and in my career and my life. And I think it will just be really nice walking through the doors here forevermore and seeing that trophy, and knowing my name is on that trophy is incredible. It's something that no one can take away from us and it's unreal.
WTA Insider: Sam Stosur had great success here. When she was the force that she was at this tournament, did it resonate back in Australia? Do you feel like she changed things in terms of showing this surface is not off limits to Aussies?
Barty: Yeah I think you know Sammy was absolutely at the forefront of almost bringing clay court tennis back to Australia and igniting that interest in clay court tennis this time of the year. Obviously there is interest around the Australia Open, Wimbledon the whole world has their eyes on it, and obviously Sam having success at the US Open always brings back good memories.
But the success that Sammy had here has always made this tournament and this month of tennis a really special one for Australian tennis and it's amazing that I can be a very small part of that now. The way that Sammy has led and has done so well here for so many years and been so consistent is something that I look up to it I know, but I know that all of the Australian youth, particularly the young girls coming up, look up to her as well.
WTA Insider: What do you think it says to the kids at home or the public at home that your brand of tennis, the type of branded tennis that was incubated in Australia, that you can have this level of success on this surface. What does it mean for you if people look at that and say that's the model. That's the type of tennis that we need to be breeding as much as we possibly can.
Barty: Yeah I think any time that you can develop more skills and more shots and more variety in your game, it's a positive. Obviously, I'm a little bit biased to that because that's what I was taught and that's what I love doing on the tennis court. But it brings creativity, it brings fun in my eyes, and it brings a whole new level of tennis and a new dimension to the game that on a clay court it comes out even more, it is magnified even more that you can bring that variety. So it's really exciting. Hopefully, if I can be a very, very small part in Australian tennis history, it would be unreal.
WTA Insider: You'll be World No.2 on Monday. You know the stat, that three years ago your name reappeared on the rankings outside of the top six hundred. That's pretty fast to go from that to this. When you think back on the journey of what it took you to get to that ranking, to get to No.2 and to be knocking on the door of No.1, what did it take to get here?
Barty: Yeah, it's bizarre because it feels like those three years have gone in a flash, but in the same breath it feels like it was a lifetime ago that Tyz and I jumped on the plane to go down to Eastbourne and starting with no ranking at all, not sure which tournament we would even get into. It's incredible the work that we've done. We've put in a lot of hours and a lot of time on the practice court, a lot of time off the practice court working on different facets of my life and my game, I suppose.
But it's been an amazing journey. I'm so lucky to have had Tyz with me through and through. Probably more days I see him than I see my family and we've gone through some heartbreaking moments together, we've been through some of the most amazing moments of my career together, and it's just been an incredible three years.
WTA Insider: Because people love dramatic arcs, what are those heartbreaking moments that stand out to you?
Barty: In my eyes, it's the French Open 2017, the final with Casey, was absolutely gut-wrenching. It was. For us, we'd come full circle. We'd started again, we'd made it to the final and it was just taken out of our hands I think. Credit to Tyz and the human being that he is. He wrote Case and I this piece of information for us that it took me a few days to open it and actually read.
Just the way he was able to view it and his perspective was extremely special and I knew right then that I was the luckiest girl on the planet having him as my coach and him on my team. We've had some really hard moments. Some tough moments in the practice court, some tough moments in matches, but I know that he's got my back and he's just incredible.
WTA Insider: When you did come back I remember you saying the key to being happy and to enjoying this section of your career was winning. That winning matches mattered. Does this triumph actually impact your enjoyment and happiness and everything on the court as much as you thought it might?
Barty: I think obviously there's this sense of almost like a fulfillment of my dreams and what I felt like I could achieve. Obviously a Grand Slam title, it's amazing. It's something that I'll have forever now and the rest of my life that I'll have that with me.
But also in saying that, we will go back to work next week. We keep chipping away. It's a fresh slate. It's a clean start for the grass. And we'll just keep chipping away trying to do all the best things and to keep continuing to try and put ourselves in these positions because this is where we want to be. This is why you do all the work to compete, to come out and do your best, and be on the biggest stage.