What makes Ash Barty great isn’t her on-court performance

RENDEZVIEW: Unlike her male contemporaries, who smash racquets and rack up speeding fines, tennis champion Ash Barty is as humble as she is hardworking. Which is why she'll be a superstar, writes Michael Madigan.

Tennis great Rod Laver, born in the regional Queensland city of Rockhampton, for many years projected onto the international stage an image Australians hoped neatly captured our collective identity. That it is to say, in summary, "utterly magnificent but far too modest to say so''.

It's an image that spread across the world in that golden period after World War II when a generation of Australian tennis players took on the toff's game played in Henry VIII's court and made it their own, often with what appeared to be effortless ease.

Rod "Rocket" Laver, Ken Rosewall, Roy Emerson and John Newcombe all exhibited some measure of that laconic attitude Australians like to think they bring to every endeavour, even those intensely competitive jousts occurring on the international tennis circuit.

But it was the extraordinary Evonne Goolagong, (later Evonne Goolagong Cawley) who shot to international tennis stardom from the small New South Wales town of Barellan who most effectively captured the hearts of Australians.

Those not yet born in the 1970s can't begin to appreciate the love and admiration poured out on "our Evonne'' as a still emerging electronic media joined with print in fastening onto the magnificent mythology represented by her upbringing.

Born one of eight kids into a family with limited economic prospects, Evonne sharpened her skills by hitting a tennis balls against a water tank with a wooden racket her dad had crafted out of an old apple case.

When she was lured down to the big smoke of Sydney to play she wore a tennis dress her mum made out of old bed sheets.

She not only won on Wimbledon's centre court but was appointed a Member of the Order of the British Empire by Queen Elizabeth II.

It was an intoxicating rags to riches fable devoured by Australia which, perhaps more than most other nations, loves to watch the underdog overcoming the obstacles to reach the magic kingdom.

Ashleigh Barty of Australia celebrates her French Open win with Rod Laver. Picture: Clive Mason/Getty
Ashleigh Barty of Australia celebrates her French Open win with Rod Laver. Picture: Clive Mason/Getty

And it was her inherent modesty, that diffidence which was by no means confected but appeared almost instinctive in her character, that sealed the deal, ensuring Australia's ongoing love affair with Evonne Goolagong Cawley endured well beyond her tennis glory days and continues still as she moves into her seventh decade.

And so it will be with Ash Barty, who also started tennis life modestly enough under the eye of Jim Joyce at a humble Brisbane tennis centre.

It was light years removed from those elite tennis ranches favoured by the seriously wealthy who can afford the $80,000 plus a year fees as they attempt to carve out an elite tennis career for their kid.

Sport is often referenced by those claiming we're an egalitarian nation but that is just another myth.

Rugby Union has long been for the wealthy, rugby league not so much, but the Rolex Sydney to Hobart yacht race and the Supercheap Auto Bathurst 1000' need no explanation beyond the sponsors' names.

Ash Barty is set to become a household name around the world after winning the 2019 French Open. Picture: Clive Mason/Getty
Ash Barty is set to become a household name around the world after winning the 2019 French Open. Picture: Clive Mason/Getty

Tennis, which really does have its genesis in the courts of English monarchs, never quite lost its royal sheen. So when we, the nation (in the European sense of the word) founded by criminals, produce a player who storms past the competition and reaches the highest ranks of global tennis royalty, we're thrilled. And much more so when they appear to remain unaffected, kind hearted, humble and somehow immune to those temper tantrums often associated with the spoiled rich in the tennis world.

As Joyce, her first coach who has known her since she was four, said this week, Ash is unaffected, good natured and easy to get along with.

The pair always catch up at the Breakfast Creek Hotel after she comes home from competitions and Joyce never fails to marvel at a sports star (who had already attracted a measure of celebrity before the win at the French Open last weekend) who mingles so easily with the crowd, as though she was just "the girl next door''.

"She won't change,'' he assured reporters. "She is just a wonderful person.''

michael.madigan@news.com.au



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