BRISBANE • Ash Barty, one of the most talented Australian tennis players of her generation, played Serena Williams on the opening night of the Australian Open in Rod Laver Arena two years ago.
Then 17, she had the support of the crowd, and ultimately of Williams, who offered praise after defeating her, 6-2, 6-1.
"I like her a lot," Williams said. "She's so young. I'd like to see her do really well. I think she has a game to do really well. We'll see."
But at this year's Australian Open, Barty has not been seen at all. She left professional tennis behind more than a year ago and just finished her first season here as a professional cricket player.
Barty burst onto the international tennis stage in 2011, winning the Wimbledon junior title at age 15. The court craft and guile she showed at her young age drew quick comparisons to Martina Hingis, the last player to make a major impression in women's tennis at such an early age. As Barty transitioned to the professsional tour, her successes continued to pile up.
TIME FOR A CHANGE
So I thought it was the right time for me to step away. Not that it would, but just in case it drove me away from tennis completely.
ASH BARTY, tennis starlet turned cricketer, on walking away from the WTA Tour when she stopped enjoying the sport.
In an era in which teenage stars are an endangered species, she made three Grand Slam finals in doubles in 2013, finishing as runner-up in the Australian Open, Wimbledon and the US Open with Casey Dellacqua.
Still younger than many players competing on the junior circuit, Barty peaked at No. 12 in the WTA doubles rankings.
Her results and ranking tailed off in 2014, and her singles fell short of the high standard she had set in doubles. But she continued to post positive results. At the US Open that year, she earned a spot in the singles main draw through the qualifying draw at a Major for the first time and reached the quarter-finals in mixed doubles. That was the last tennis tournament she played.
Citing what she calls "the general stresses of playing around the world and having the spotlight on", Barty said she wanted to press pause on the sport she had played and loved since she was four.
"A big part of my philosophy was always that tennis is a game, and I wanted to enjoy it," the 19-year-old said. "At the end of the day, it was just a game that I wanted to have fun in, enjoy, and for me it turned into a little bit of a slog, and I wasn't enjoying it quite as much as I would have liked.
"So I thought it was the right time for me to step away. Not that it would, but just in case it drove me away from tennis completely."
Within weeks, news that Barty was putting her tennis career on hold had rippled quickly through Australian tennis circles.
"I think anybody in their right mind would have been surprised by that because of the success that she was having and what she was achieving in the tennis world," Rennae Stubbs, an Australian six-time Major doubles champion, said.
For those closer to Barty, signs were apparent that she was enjoying the sport less and less.
"Maybe she was a victim of her own success, to a degree," her coach, Jason Stoltenberg, said. "We tried really hard to try to manage that, and to protect her from that as best we could, but maybe things happened a little too fast for Ash. If things could've been a little bit slower, maybe that would have helped."
In July, nearly a year into her absence from competition, Barty was introduced to a new sphere of sports.
A trainer she knew through tennis was working with the Southern Stars, Australia's national women's cricket team, and invited Barty to speak at a team dinner about how to prepare for long travel periods. Seeing her gel with the women on the team, a coach invited Barty to a training session.
Barty had never stepped in front of a wicket or even held a real cricket ball. Still, with her excellent hand-eye coordination, she managed to impress.
The Brisbane Heat eventually invited her to play professionally in the inaugural season of the Women's Big Bash League.
Although many facets of the sports differ - Barty's non-dominant left hand needs to play a larger role with a cricket bat than it did with a tennis racket - much of her athleticism has proved universal.
"From the first session that she had, she did not drop a ball," the Heat's coach, Andy Richards, said. "In terms of her transferable skills, there's obviously a few similarities there. One is that cricket is obviously a hand-eye sport, as is tennis."
Besides her tennis skill set, Barty's new team-mates also noticed the increased media attention that the presence of a tennis star brought to the upstart league.
Barty, who had earned more than US$900,000 (S$1.3 million) in prize money in her few years on the tennis tour, was now playing in a league in which the maximum salary for a player is about US$6,800.
Grace Harris, a cricket team-mate, said she saw Barty as pursuing a higher calling, if a substantially lower pay cheque.
More than the sport itself, Barty found the team dynamics of cricket most appealing, having come from the individualistic world of tennis.
Stubbs, who works as an analyst for Australian television during the Australian Open, said she believed Barty could still have great results and a long career in tennis.
"When it comes to hitting a ball with something, nothing would surprise me if Ash Barty had success in it," she said. "Selfishly, would I love to see her come back and play tennis? Absolutely, because I still think that her best tennis is ahead of her."
Barty, for her part, suggested no certainty about a return to professional tennis some day.
"I think a fair indication of that is a coin toss," she said. "We'll see."
NEW YORK TIMES