When asked who inspired her to play tennis, Australian Number 1 Ash Barty doesn’t think twice.
“Evonne Goolagong Cawley has inspired me on and off the court since I was a young girl,” Barty told an International Women’s Day event earlier this year.
“Evonne’s outstanding achievements and her passion for helping the Indigenous community are two things I admire.”
A proud Ngaragu woman from southern NSW and north-eastern Victoria, Barty was destined for big things on the tennis court.
In her junior career, she held a Grand Slam title at Wimbledon and was ranked as the World’s Junior Number 2.
But among the challenges in the 23-year-old’s sharp rise to success, it was the mentorship provided by Goolagong Cawley that provided staunch support.
Burnt out from the strict demands of the game in 2014 and ready to throw in the towel, Goolagong Cawley was in Barty’s corner.
“Hey Darl,” Goolagong Cawley texted. “Go and wet a line.”
It was this kind of sure sentiment that allowed Barty to pause and reset. So she tried her hand at cricket and succeeded. But eventually she gravitated back to tennis, with fresh focus and stronger determination than ever.
Just three years ago, on her return to the competitive circuit, Barty was ranked 623rd in the world.
Celebrated across community
Professing to be most comfortable on grass surfaces, it is a tale of perseverance that saw Barty claim the French Open prize on the Paris clay on Saturday night.
The victory brought her full-circle; a World Number 2 ranking coupled with a historic milestone.
As Barty raised the trophy at Roland Garros, she became the first Aboriginal woman to triumph in the French arena since her mentor Evonne Goolagong Cawley did so in 1971.
Her success was celebrated across the First Nations community.
“Congratulations @ashbar96!! Making Australia proud!!!” the Olympic champion Cathy Freeman tweeted.
Three hearts followed Freeman’s message – red, yellow and black.
“Sister,” Barty replied. A single word that carried a tonne of significance. Alongside it, a string of hearts also in the colours of the Aboriginal flag.
Fellow Aboriginal athlete and two time Olympian Nova Peris also showed her support among a flowing dialogue of Indigenous pride.
It’s a fitting turn of events that this weekend, aspiring Indigenous tennis players will take the court at the Western Rivers Cup in Toowoomba; an hour west of Barty’s hometown of Ipswich in Queensland.
Here Barty is hailed a sporting hero - a household name long before she joined the illustrious club of Grand Slam Champions.
“All of our very popular Indigenous stars in all sporting forms, they grew up in small communities and they know what it’s like to struggle,” Sports Coordinator at South West Indigenous Network Kieren Gibbs told NITV News.
“She’s a great role model …from an Indigenous young girl’s point of view, having Ash as an idol, playing sport and making it - this could help them figure out what they would like to do too.”
Giving back to her community
A Githabul and Kooma man, Mr Gibbs said Barty has always been staunch in her identity and has consistently given back to her community.
He can speak first hand, having organised to meet Barty with a group of young Indigenous girls, aspiring to be tennis players just like their role model.
“We had the chance to meet her [before the Fed Cup in February] and it’s something that she’s really proud of, being Aboriginal but also being in a position that she can motivate and help younger girls,” he said.
“She’s got plenty of years left in her career where she will leave a legacy … and make changes.
Mr Gibbs described the bus ride home from meeting Ash as a moment the girls will remember forever and “will be able to tell that to their kids in the future.”
12 year-old Sienna Wilson was one of the girls who met Ash Barty that day.
“Now that Ash has won a championship it’s made me look up to her even more because she’s patient and a hard worker,” Sienna told NITV News.
“Because she’s also Indigenous like me, it made me feel comfortable around her.”
This is echoed by 16-year-old Mikayla Zahirovic who is hoping to follow in Barty’s footsteps, having recently won a mixed doubles trophy at the Fiji Open.
“Seeing Ash Barty take out the Roland Garros championship means a lot,” Mikayla said.
“Being an Indigenous woman as well, she really inspired me and gave me the hope that if I put my mind to it I can achieve something like that too.”
Zahirovic says it is strong role models like Barty and Goolagong Cawley that encourage her to pursue her tennis dreams.
“It’s not every day that you see an Indigenous woman take out one of the Grand Slams,” she said. “It’s even more special because she’s Indigenous and she’s representing our culture.”
Writing for the Sydney Morning Herald, Linda Burney supported this notion of Australia’s top tennis star; a quiet achiever giving back to her community, behind the scenes.
“One of the most impressive things about Barty is how, throughout her rise and rise, she has managed to keep her feet planted firmly on the ground,” Burney wrote.
“For all the challenges that confront Indigenous Australians, our Indigenous athletes provide strong role models for our youth, strengthening identity and Aboriginality, and a sense of place and belonging.
“And it is not so much about the physical athleticism itself, as it is about what those sporting achievements represent and the valuable lessons they have for our young people in fields beyond sport: discipline, persistence, unity, strength and dignity.”
In 2018, Barty was named National Indigenous Tennis Ambassador after a stellar year in which she was awarded the accolade for Female Sportsperson of the Year in the National Dreamtime Awards alongside Australian tennis’ highest honour, the Newcombe Medal.
“We’re very proud of our Ngaragu tribe,” Barty told Tennis Australia in an interview.
“I’m an extremely proud Indigenous woman and being able to travel the world and show off my heritage in a way and show off that I’m a true blue Aussie, as true as they come, is pretty amazing.”
With a Grand Slam title in tow, Ash Barty will now attempt to follow Goolagong Cawley on the grass court at Wimbledon.
“It's amazing how she's created this path for Indigenous tennis,” Barty told a clamouring media scrum after her winning match at Roland Garros.
“There are more opportunities for kids to play tennis, both male and female, and I hope we can continue to create those opportunities and let kids know that this is an option for a career and even if it's not, it's a sport that they can play for life."