• Ashleigh Barty celebrates after moving into French Open final (Getty Images)
There's been twists and turns along the way but Australian tennis star Ashleigh Barty has been destined for stardom since first picking up a racquet aged five.
Source:
AAP
8 Jun 2019 - 2:59 AM  UPDATED 8 Jun 2019 - 2:59 AM

Few 14-year-olds are invited to Las Vegas to hang out with tennis legends Steffi Graf and Andre Agassi. Then again, few 14-year-olds can boast the special talents of Ashleigh Barty.

Already with a cabinet overflowing with trophies after dominating juniors much senior and almost twice her height, Barty was that chosen one nine years ago.

As a guest of the esteemed adidas player development team, Barty received specialist tuition from Agassi's former coach and fellow Australian Darren Cahill and bonded with the great Graf at a baseball game.

"This trip has given me a lot of confidence and self-belief and has made me realise how I need to work and what sacrifices I must make in order to be a great tennis player," Barty said at the time.

Almost a decade on, Barty on Saturday night has the chance to emulate six-times champion Graf and win the French Open.

She's done the hard work, she retains the self-belief and has made more sacrifices than anyone outside her tight-knit camp can imagine.

A junior Wimbledon champion at 15 and three-times grand slam doubles finalist by 17, Barty was mentally burnt out at 18 after making the ultimate sacrifice of all: leaving the comfort and security of her family home.

Depressingly homesick and suffocating under crushing expectations, the so-called next Martina Hingis packed it all in September 2014.

The shy, prodigiously gifted teenager dropped the bombshell after a first-round US Open loss, trading the grind and isolation of the professional tennis circuit for the camaraderie of women's cricket and the Brisbane Heat dressing room.

Incredibly, having never hit a ball outside her back yard, Barty made a stunning cross-sport transition.

So exceptional was Barty with the willow that Queensland women's coach Andy Richards reckons the all-round super talent could easily have been preparing for an Ashes series right now alongside Ellyse Perry, Meg Lanning and co instead of readying herself for her maiden grand slam final appearance at Roland Garros.

"In 12 months she could've played for Australia," Richards told AAP after Barty's foray into cricket featured a club ton and a tidy 39 off 27 balls on her WBBL debut in 2015.

"I've never seen anything like it since and probably never will.

"She's a freak from that perspective, in how she transferred her skills across."

But tennis was in her blood.

After missing the one-on-one combat, Barty returned to her first sporting love on June 6, 2016 - almost three years ago to the day.

"I think it's what I was born to do," she said.

"I'm a tennis player through and through. I just had to see that for myself.

"I walked away and thoroughly enjoyed my time in cricket. It was a gradual progression for me, during those two years, to want to come back to the sport I had played and loved since I was five years old."

All those countless hours hitting balls, from Wednesday to Sunday at the West Brisbane Tennis Centre under the guidance of first coach Jim Joyce, is now paying off.

The Ipswich-born 23-year-old will stride onto Court Philippe Chatrier on Saturday night a warm favourite against unseeded Czech Marketa Vondrousova to become Australia's first French Open singles champion since Margaret Court in 1973.

Three other compatriots, including her indigenous idol and mentor Evonne Goolagong Cawley and her Fed Cup teammate Samantha Stosur in 2010, have fallen in the women's final in Paris in 50-year professional era.

Goolagong Cawley, though, is among the many who believe it's Barty's time to break the drought.

Already a grand slam doubles champion, having broken through with CoCo Vandeweghe last year in New York, Barty's rise in singles has been both steady and spectacular.

From a ranking of No.623 on her return from a 21-month hiatus, Barty cracked the top 50 for the first time barely a year later.

She entered the top 20 in October 2017, after landing her first WTA title in Kuala Lumpur.

Lauded for her rare ability to play chess on a tennis court, Barty entered the top 10 for the first time in March after claiming her fourth, fifth and sixth top-eight scalps of the season en route to glory at tennis's "fifth major" in Miami.

Unbeaten in six singles and doubles rubbers while leading Australia to its first Fed Cup final this year since 1994, Barty has won more matches during her milestone-filled 2019 season than any other player in the world.

Just one more win and Barty will have her name etched alongside Court, Goolagong Cawley and Lesley Bowrey as only the fourth Aussie woman on the Coupe Suzanne Lenglen.

A new ranking of No.2 will follow on Monday.

Barty could even arrive later this month at Wimbledon's All England and Croquet Club, where she was girls' champion in 2011 and where many felt her grand slam breakthrough was most likely to come, as world No.1.

Heady days indeed for a humble young star who most feared was lost to tennis forever.

- AAP

 

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