Australian who once walked away from tennis wins French Open women's title

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PARIS — A cricketer no more, Ashleigh Barty on Saturday confirmed the wisdom of her decision to return to professional tennis by winning the French Open, her first Grand Slam singles title.

She capped her comeback to the sport with a 6-1, 6-3 victory over Marketa Vondrousova, an unseeded 19-year-old from the Czech Republic.

On paper, it was a surprise that Barty, a 23-year-old Australian, ended up the champion in Paris. She was seeded No. 8 and has played comparatively little on clay, arriving at Roland Garros with only a 15-13 career record on the surface.

“Today, I just kept telling myself: ‘I may never get this opportunity ever again. Try to grab it with both hands,’” Barty said.

But for those who have tracked her rise over the past two years, it was far from a shock that she had a major trophy in her grasp. In a time of instability at the top of women’s tennis, she reached the quarterfinals of the Australian Open in January, then won the Miami Open in March. She also has led Australia to Fed Cup victories this year over strong teams from the United States and Belarus.

“I’m learning more and more each time I play on clay,” Barty said. “Learning how to use my variety and use it the best I can. It’s been an amazing two weeks.”

Barty is the first Australian woman to win the French Open since Margaret Court in 1973. She is a popular figure at home, where her all-court game, her modest and plain-spoken personality and her family history have struck a chord with both the younger and older set.

Her father, Robert, is an indigenous Australian, and Barty, who is from Queensland, has taken on an increasingly prominent role as a tennis ambassador in that community, following the lead of Evonne Goolagong Cawley, the seven-time Grand Slam singles champion who also has indigenous roots.

A tennis prodigy, Barty won the Wimbledon girls title at age 15. She was long considered the next great Australian player, only to step away from the sport in late 2014 when she was ranked in the top 50 in doubles. She was struggling with the expectations and the travel, and she decided to play professional cricket in Australia in 2015 before returning to the tennis circuit.

Asked Saturday if she would be a Grand Slam champion if she had not taken her break from the sport, she did not hesitate: “No, absolutely not.”

In May 2016, when she returned to competition, she no longer had a ranking. On Monday, she will be ranked No. 2 behind Naomi Osaka.

Relatively short for a modern-day women’s tennis star at 5 feet, 5 inches, Barty has a strong lower body that is the key to her explosive forehand and serve, giving her the leg drive to generate power and spin.

Her forehand is heavy, an advantage on clay.

She can also hit her backhand with two hands or chip it crisply with one, and she has excellent volleys, as her success in doubles makes clear.

She won the U.S. Open women’s doubles title last year with CoCo Vandeweghe.

Despite her increasing singles success, Barty intends to keep playing doubles at significant events, even if double duty can be draining.

She has the game to thrive on all surfaces, but what she has lacked has been the self-belief and ability to control her nerves under big-match pressure.

“Since the end of last year, I think she’s really improved in her capacity to handle situations better and whatever’s thrown at her, whether it’s weather or opponents or whatever,” her coach, Craig Tyzzer, said.

He attributes the improvement to her new maturity and to her work with Ben Crowe, an Australian mentor and performance coach who has worked with Australian Rules football teams and professional athletes in other sports.

“I’ve been in discussions for a long time with him, but Ash just wasn’t ready,” Tyzzer said. “It was Wimbledon last year that was the tipping point for both of us. The tennis was fine, but just her ability to emotionally handle some things wasn’t great. So that sort of tipped her over the line. I think you’ve got to be ready to do it, and she was. She took a big step in that regard, and for me that made a massive difference not only in her tennis, but in just her growth generally in life as well.”

Barty is the ninth different woman to win a Grand Slam singles title in the last 10 major tournaments. Six were first-time major champions.

Barty had quite a draw in Paris, facing no player ranked in the top 10 and no former Grand Slam singles champions. But she still had to face some of her old demons in the semifinals Friday, when she lost the first set in a tiebreaker to Amanda Anisimova, a 17-year-old American, after holding a 5-0 lead.

Barty kept her composure to win, 6-7 (4), 6-3, 6-3.

When she and Tyzzer got back to the hotel, Barty was eager to move on, her coach said, but he broke down the match’s significance with her while communicating remotely with Crowe.

“I think 12 months ago she wouldn’t have come back and won that match,” Tyzzer said, “so for her to be able to just find a way to win in those conditions the way she was playing and the way her opponent was playing, I think is just a credit to her and the areas she has put a lot of effort into.”

Now she is a Grand Slam singles champion. Not bad for someone who feels more comfortable on grass, which she considers her favorite surface.

Watch out at Wimbledon.

“No, she’s a clay-court specialist now,” Tyzzer said with a grin.

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