Australia's darling Barty: a sportswoman of many talents
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Multi-talented Ashleigh Barty has been a professional cricketer, won a golf tournament and now taken her place among the giants of Australian tennis after winning her home Grand Slam on Saturday.
It was fitting that Chris O'Neil, the last home-grown player to win the Australian Open in 1978, was in the stadium to witness Barty ending a 44-year hoodoo and thrilling a nation glued to their televisions.
Barty, the world number one, beat American Danielle Collins 6-3, 7-6 (7/2) to send Australia into delirium.
That was followed by a wonderful moment for Barty as she received the winner's Daphne Akhurst Memorial Cup from seven-time Grand Slam champion and fellow indigenous Australian Evonne Goolagong-Cawley, who won the last of her four Australian Opens in 1977.
"She melts my heart, Evonne, to see her on the court, I'm a very lucky girl," said Barty of Goolagong-Cawley, who was Australia's tennis darling 50 years ago -- a mantle now being taken up by the newest Melbourne Park champion.
"To be able to see Evonne after, I mean I haven't seen her since this time last year, so we've got a few more hugs to celebrate yet, but unbelievable to see her."
Barty was also lifted by the presence of another indigenous legend, Sydney 2000 Olympics 400m gold medal winner Cathy Freeman, who was also at Rod Laver Arena.
"Looking up at the end and seeing Cathy, I mean she's an inspiration, she's been an inspiration to so many people all around the world, but for our heritage, our family, she's just the best," said Barty.
"To be able to share that tonight with Evonne and Cathy, it's a night I'll never forget."
Tennis, cricket, golf
Few athletes can boost such a varied sporting CV as the down-to-earth Barty.
Widely seen as one of the nicest players on tour, the 25-year-old began playing tennis as a child in the Queensland state capital Brisbane.
But it was a trip to the Australian Open for a training camp when she was "11 or 12" that proved to be the spark that drove her to where she is today.
"To see how professional it was and to see everyone going about their business was really eye-opening. My first taste of it was in the juniors and I loved it," she said this week.
"That kind of lit the flame."
The Australian went on to win the junior Wimbledon title as a 15-year-old in 2011.
But the expectations that came with success took their toll and she made a shock decision three years later to ditch tennis for cricket, signing for Brisbane Heat in the inaugural Women's Big Bash League.
"In short, I think I needed just to find myself," Barty said.
While cricket gave her "a different perspective about sport", the lure of tennis was never far away. She returned after a season out.
Barty broke through for her maiden Grand Slam triumph at the French Open in 2019, became Australia's first women's world number one since Goolagong-Cawley and finally won a cherished Wimbledon crown last year.
So dominant has she been that she ended 2021 as the top-ranked player for a third consecutive year, joining Steffi Graf, Martina Navratilova, Serena Williams and Chris Evert as the only women to achieve the feat.
Barty should have returned to Paris to defend her Roland Garros title in 2020, but she pulled out over coronavirus fears and picked up her golf clubs instead.
And on a course designed by Greg Norman near Brisbane, she won the Brookwater Golf Club women's title with a commanding 7 and 5 triumph in the matchplay final.
"Is there anything you can't do?" asked one social media user at the time.
Barty and long-time partner Garry Kissick got engaged in November, sparking a frenzy of congratulations from fellow tennis stars.
Barty attributes much of her success to her close-knit team, which includes not just Kissick but her family and long-time coach Craig Tyzzer, routinely referring to "we" rather than "I" when she speaks of her tennis exploits.
"Everyone is equally important," she said. "We're all equal."