AFL

NEVER A BAD WORD BY OR ABOUT BARTY

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Reading Time: 6 minutes

SEVEN DAYS IN SPORT:  IT’S been one of the best stories in Australian sporting history for a simple reason – it was all good, writes RON REED.

WRITING a book about Ash Barty was a relatively simple assignment – even if it seemed to be never-ending. Which it did. I had to have three goes at it, and there was still no guarantee that the story wouldn’t need updating a fourth, fifth or sixth time. She seemed to have so much stretching ahead of her.

But I guess I’m off the hook now.

Barty’s shock retirement from tennis this week has brought to an end one of the more unique, uplifting and inspirational stories in the long and proud history of Australian sport, and while there will no doubt be more books written about it in the not too distant future I am pleased to have had the opportunity to set the ball rolling in that respect.

The hardest part was trying to keep pace with the Barty Party, because once she broke through to the stratospheric top levels of one of the world’s most popular and competitive sports there was just no stopping her.

It seemed that every time you tuned in, her narrative had overtaken itself and needed to be rewritten, re-assessed and repackaged.

And so it was that the account of her breakthrough triumph at the French Open in 2019, entitled BARTY: THE POWER AND THE GLORY had to be replaced two years later by BARTY: MUCH MORE THAN TENNIS  after she won Wimbledon 2021.

Only six months later she claimed the Australian Open, and off we went again with BARTY: ARISE, QUEEN OF OZ. This version is currently on sale in bookshops, from Booktopia, Amazon and from wilkinsonpublishing.com.au.

Barty book cover

My first seven words of Arise… were freakishly prescient. They were: It doesn’t get any better than this.

I’m not a mind-reader so I wasn’t to know, of course, that they were precisely the words that she was thinking herself, that had been playing on her mind since Wimbledon.

In hindsight, they should have been the title of the book – but they do appear prominently on the back cover.

The trilogy was complete in well under three years, which has few, if any, precedents in Australian sports publishing, with the possible exception of the annual captain’s diaries churned out by Test cricketers Steve Waugh and Ricky Ponting, a genre that seems to have lost its appeal..

So, notwithstanding the relatively compressed time frame, why was the Barty book such a simple assignment?

In a word: positivity.

Not many biographers can truthfully say about their subjects that there are no negatives that need to be balanced against all the good bits, no skeletons that need to be extracted from their cupboards, no forgotten scandals, old feuds, rash utterances or youthful follies.

I don’t know Ash well enough – or at all, actually, having taken on this project simply as an admirer from afar and a professional sports observer and fan – to know for absolute certain that she has always been 100 per cent squeaky clean, but if that’s not the case then I remain blissfully unaware of it. As do all of her countless fans.

In other words, it is safe to assume that what you see is what you get.

You can’t really go wrong when you know that anything and everything you write about the subject is going to be met with the uncritical approval of the reader. She is a paragon and no matter how often or how much you stress that you are never going to be accused of going over the top.

I had form in this department. A few years earlier I was commissioned to write the life story of another legendary Australian tennis player, Frank Sedgman.

At the time Frank and I were if not exactly  best mates then certainly close acquaintances and I admired him immensely, but I knew that if the book was to be taken seriously and not written off as mere hagiography I needed to find out if there were any less edifying aspects of his stupendous career, which took place well before my time.

I consulted two very eminent sportswriters who had been on his case back then and both confirmed that there was nothing to report, unless you wanted to mention that a lot of fans accused him of putting money before patriotism when he decided to leave the mainstream game and play professionally for American promoter Jack Kramer.

It was absurdly unfair criticism that quickly blew over and Frank, now in his mid-nineties, remains one of the most respected and popular Australian sporting figures of his or any later generation.

He is a great admirer of Barty and they have a lot in common, I think.

There has, of course, been an avalanche of words written about her since her announcement, and not one – not a single one – has been “bad,” just as there has never been a “bad” word from her.

This is extremely rare, perhaps unprecedented. In relatively recent times, perhaps it could be said of only Cathy Freeman – a member of the Barty cohort.

It’s fair to say it certainly wasn’t the case with Shane Warne, despite the extremely positive – and justifiable — tone of the countless tributes that followed his untimely death.

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As every columnist and commentator in the land has pointed out – in different ways, but essentially unanimously  —  there was nothing not to like about either Barty the tennis player and Barty the person – both have been about as good as it gets.

She won three major tournaments and 24 in all, was – and remained – world No 1 for 120 weeks, behaved impeccably on court, never challenged umpires, was the perfect role model for kids, an enthusiastic ambassador for the indigenous community, a promoter of family values, modest, humble and unmotivated by fame or fortune, both of which she earned in vast quantities.

The list goes on.

Most impressively, perhaps, she has emerged from what can be a soul-destroying lifestyle successful, fulfilled and happy. It is a great result and far from an automatic one. 

And we haven’t seen nor heard the last of her. At her presser on Thursday she made it clear she has identified new challenges but is just not yet ready to reveal what they are.

So more chapters await. The story is never-ending.

CRICKET Australia is taking its time appointing a new coach to replace Justin Langer, no doubt waiting until the current Test and white-ball tours of Pakistan are complete and stand-in Andrew McDonald’s credentials have become a little clearer. Meanwhile, Langer is keeping his own counsel. However, veteran cricket writer Ken Piesse confidently reported for Sportshounds this week that negotiations were well advanced for Langer to take over the vacant England job on a salary of a million quid.

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If Piesse is on the money, and he usually is, the saga that played out over summer in such an unsatisfactory way is set to have a sequel that will make the next Ashes series, not much more than a year away, even edgier than usual.

I will resist the temptation to indulge in too much early crowing about the new-look mighty Blues, 2-0 for the first time in a decade – it’s been 0-2 every other year – except to say that Patrick Cripps might be about to enjoy the best season of his career. He surely has six Brownlow votes already and is a $6 equal favourite with Demon superstar Christian Petracca.

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There is a reason, though, why Blues fans might not be rushing to back him. That’s because Sam Walsh, who polled 30 votes last year, hit the ground running  on his return from injury with another blinder against the Bulldogs and might already be in the votes again. In this context they could run interference against each other. Suffice to say, if the pair of them can maintain the form they’re already in, the Blues are going to be very hard to beat. I hope.

AUSTRALIAN boxing is in fairly good shape at the moment with a number of legitimate international champions and contenders, so why it continues to encourage old footballers to stink up the joint is a mystery. It reached a new low this week when former Saint, Swan and Bulldog Barry Hall, aged 43, having his second fight, was decked three times in the first two minutes by rugby league identity Sonny Bill Williams.

If you wanted to watch this farce, Main Event was happy to relieve you of $50 for the privilege, which sounded like daylight robbery even before the first punch was thrown. At least Big Bad,Barry’s second “career” is extinct now, and the better news is that no other AFL pensioner seems interested in further embarrassing the code. There have been too many of them, none remotely successful, including the sad case of the late former Tiger Shane Tuck, whose first attempt landed him in hospital. The League and Union “boys” are welcome to it.

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Author: Ron Reed

RON REED has spent more than 50 years as a sportswriter or sports editor, mainly at The Herald and Herald Sun. He has covered just about every sport at local, national and international level, including multiple assignments at the Olympic and Commonwealth games, cricket tours, the Tour de France, America’s Cup yachting, tennis and golf majors and world title fights.

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