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Still No. 1 going into 2021

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AUSTRALIA’S world-beating tennis superstar hasn’t lifted a racquet for months but she is still the best in the business, writes CHRIS McLEOD:

THE tennis world waited with great anticipation to see how Ash Barty’s defence of her World No 1 ranking unfolded through 2020.

Could she stay No 1, could she retain her French Open title, could she win another slam, could she take the Wimbledon crown?

In what turned out to be an annus horribilis for sport at all levels, tennis was one of many sports that took a significant pummelling from the coronavirus.

Hardly any professional sport escaped disruption: from March through to September there was little for sports fans to enjoy. Tennis, golf, Formula 1 motor racing along with football of all codes, cricket, basketball, cycling and even horse racing all were put on hold at some stage. The big losers were of course the world’s Olympians with Japan having to opt out of hosting in 2020 and rescheduling to 2021.

Even when some sports were able to resume, they did so without the important element of crowds. Participants and officials were put into “bubbles” where contact with outsiders was not permitted and daily testing and monitoring became the norm.

Times were particularly tough for Australians seeking to plot their way around world events. Overseas travel was severely impacted and even closed borders within Australia became a problem.

On the upside for Ash Barty, she achieved an 18-year first for Australian tennis by retaining the World No 1 ranking, from 2019 and into 2021, without picking up a racquet since February.

Ash was looking forward to a big 2020, including her title defence in the French Open, and of course, the Olympic games. Wimbledon also was in her sights.

The start of 2020 saw a new-look tennis roster; the status of the women’s Brisbane International in early January, traditionally the first significant tournament of the year, appeared to be reduced with the introduction of the men’s ATP Cup that was given priority scheduling on centre court and the women relegated to lesser courts.

Ash began the year shakily in Brisbane, losing  her opening singles match  (after a bye in the first round)  to American qualifier Jennifer Brady, 6-4, 7-6 (7/4).

“You can call it rust or you can just call it a bit of execution,” Ash said.

She reached the finals of the Brisbane International doubles  with Dutch partner Kiki Bertens, going down 3-6 7-6 (9-7) 10-8 in a close battle to top seeds Hsieh Su-wei and Barbora Strycova. Ash had pledged  her prizemoney (about $65,000) to the Red Cross Appeal arising from the devasting Australian bushfires.

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“With everything that’s been going on in Australia, the way that everyone’s come together has been incredible and all and all I’m bloody proud to be an Aussie,” Ash said at the trophy presentation.

From Brisbane it was on to Adelaide for another new event on the pro tour and another milestone achieved in her already outstanding career.

Her  6-2 7-5 defeat of World No. 24 Ukranian Dayana Yastremska in the final was her first WTA title win in Australia.

It was also the first victory t by an Australian woman in Australia since Jarmila Wolfe’s Hobart International win in 2011.

So it was amid a high degree of confidence that she went to Melbourne for the Australian Open from 20 January.

She claimed another record there; her victory over Alison Riske in three sets saw her become the first Australian to qualify for consecutive Australian Open quarter finals since Pat Rafter 32 years before.

She went on to reach the semi-finals, the first Australian woman to do that since 1984, where she faced American Sofia Kenin.

But the chance of taking the Australian  title eluded Ash; she succumbed in straight sets, 7-6 7-5.

It may have been the 39 degrees in the cauldron or just a case of missed opportunities, but Ash’s disappointment was obvious without her having to say as much. The crowd was left stunned but eventually gave Ash a great ovation as she left the court.

She was philosophical at her press conference and referred to “perspective”.

She entered the room carrying  her baby niece, Olivia. “This is what life is all about. It’s amazing,” she said.

“It’s my newest niece. My sister just had her about 11, 12 weeks ago.

“I mean, perspective is a beautiful thing. Life is a beautiful thing. She brought a smile to my face as soon as I came off the court. I got to give her a hug. It’s all good. It’s all good.”

The match itself? “I think (it was) a match where I didn’t feel super comfortable,” Ash said.

“I felt like my first plan wasn’t working. I couldn’t execute the way that I wanted. I tried to go to B and C.

“I think I had to dig and find a way. I mean, I’m two points away from winning that in straight sets, which is disappointing. Knowing I had to fight and scrap, I still gave myself a chance to win the match.”

Sofia Kennin went on to take the Australian title, her maiden Grand Slam win, defeating Spaniard  Garbine Muguruza 4-6, 6-2, 6-2.

The 2020 WTA Schedule was to comprise 60 events, including 55 WTA tournaments, four Grand Slams, and the Olympics.

Enter Covid-19 in March and five months without an event and the world rankings frozen.

The WTA schedule was down to just 20 events for the rest of the year when the tour restarted in  August in Italy. By then many players were not able or willing to travel because of Covid-19 requirements and restrictions. When there were tournaments, there were no crowds.

The first slam since the virus outbreak was the US Open in September. Several top players – including Ash – did not enter. The women’s title went to Naomi Osaka, who then did not contest the French Open.

After missing the US open and with Wimbledon put on ice for the year, Ash withdrew from clay court events in Italy and France in September, choosing not to defend her Roland Garros title.

“It has been a difficult decision to make but unfortunately I will not be competing in Europe this year,” Barty said in a statement on Instagram.

“Last year’s French Open was the most special tournament of my career so this is not a decision I have made lightly.

“There are two reasons for my decision. The first is the health risks that still exist with COVID. The second is my preparation, which has not been ideal without my coach being able to train with me due to the state border closures in Australia.

“I wish the players and the French Federation all the best for a successful tournament.

“I now look forward to a long pre-season and the summer in Australia. It has been a challenging year for everyone and although I am disappointed on a tennis front, the health and wellbeing of my family and my team will always be my priority. Thank you to my fans for your continued support, I can’t wait to play for you again.”

As things turned out for Ash, without a tournament win to her name and not taking part in any late year tournaments, she remained World No 1 at the end of 2020, just as she was at the end of 2019.

Not defending her title in France had no  effect.  A series of withdrawals and upsets from the US Open through to Paris worked in her favour.

In France, after top-seed Simona Halep was knocked out in the fourth round by Polish teenager Iga Swiatek, no one could finish the year with more points than Ash; she was about 1500 points ahead of Halep and just under 3000 points ahead of Naomi Osaka.

She thus became the first Australian to end consecutive years at No. 1 since Lleyton Hewitt in 2001-2002.

Ash wasn’t completely idle in the isolation that was Queensland for most of the year in which she turned 24 and nor did she go empty-handed in trophies.

She always showed promise in golf, so it was no surprise to those who have watched her sporting career that she became the Brookwater Golf Club women’s champion in 2020 while sitting out of tennis.

She claimed her club championship with a decisive seven-and-five win in the match-play final.

The break from tennis saw Ash reduce her golfing handicap from 10 to four. She played rounds during the year with tennis champion Pat Rafter and her boyfriend Garry Kissick who is  PGA trainee professional at Brookwater.

As for tennis, 2021 was pretty much in the hands of those battling to contain the spread of Covid-19.

Author: Chris McLeod

Chris McLeod is a contributor to Sportshounds

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