Ash Barty sat down to meet with reporters, crossed her arms and rested them on a table that held the French Open trophy she’d just won.
Beneath the table, her white-and-black shoes were covered with rust-coloured, clay-court dust.
First question: At the start of 2019, which Grand Slam tournament did you think gave you the best chance at a title?
“Certainly not here,” Barty replied Saturday night, without hesitation. “That’s for sure.”
Hey, give the 23-year-old Australian credit for honesty.
After all, right up until the past two weeks, which culminated with her 6-1, 6-3 victory over 19-year-old Marketa Vondrousova of the Czech Republic in the final, Roland Garros and its slow surface didn’t jump out as ideal for Barty. In the past, she had plenty of trouble with the way clay dulls powerful serves and other strokes, as well as the footwork it requires.
“I mean, I said to my team at the start of the year, I was just worried about falling over. And I can successfully say that we got to the end of the clay-court season and I did not fall over once,” she said with a smile. “So I’m pretty pumped with that.”
The results the first five times Barty entered the French Open: three losses in the first round, two in the second round.
“She looks forward to the grass-court season every time we play on clay,” joked her coach, Craig Tyzzer. “So I’m not sure what she’s going to expect now. She’s had a pretty good clay season now. So it’s going to be hard to top what she’s done here.”
Sure is. But Barty does appear to have the required skill, the willingness to adapt within a match and the desire to improve that could make her someone to watch for years.
She will move up to No. 2 in the rankings Monday, behind Naomi Osaka, who won the previous two major tournaments.
And now Barty should, in theory, be moving into the portion of the year that suits her the most: Wimbledon and its grass, where play begins July 1, followed by the hard-court season that includes the U.S. Open.
It was after a first-round loss at Flushing Meadows in 2014 that Barty decided to step away from tennis. She had been a top junior player, who won the girls’ title at the All England Club, but the pressures and stresses of the professional tour were a lot to take as a teenager.
So Barty walked away, becoming a pro in another sport: cricket.
After almost two years away, she returned to tennis in 2016, originally with a ranking outside the top 600.
But now, with a fresh perspective and new confidence, she is a whole new person — on the court and off.
“They go hand-in-hand. I think I have become a better person, and with that, I’ve become a better tennis player, as well,” Barty said. “I keep saying I have an incredible team around me who help me in every single facet of my life.”
Barty had never been past the fourth round of a major until getting to the quarterfinals at the Australian Open this January. That helped her self-belief and it just kept increasing over the past two weeks.
All traceable, in some way, to her time away from the sport.
“Look, if she didn’t take a break, I’m not sure she’d still be playing,” Tyzzer said. “So I think the time away was the best thing for her.”
She is the first Australian to win the French Open since Margaret Court in 1973.
Hers is a country with a proud history in tennis, of course.
Court won more Grand Slam titles than anyone else, 24. Rod Laver, who was at Saturday’s final, is the only man to win a calendar-year Grand Slam twice. Plenty of other Australian names fill the sport’s record books.
“I don’t think she thought she could win it,” Laver said. “Then, all of a sudden, her game improved. And then I think she said, ‘I’m in a new world. I’ve stepped up my level here.'”
Who knows what’s next?