Holding Court

Young stars not shy on talent or ambition

When Australia's Ashleigh Barty first appeared on the tennis world's radar, she was a cherubic 15-year-old shyly lifting the Wimbledon girls' trophy in 2011.

Less than two years later, she was into her first major final as a 16-year-old - this time in doubles - alongside her good friend and mentor Casey Dellacqua, on home soil at the Australian Open.

And then she walked away.

Barty's decision to shelve her prodigious tennis talent in 2014 at the age of 18 stunned the sport, but her courage would eventually propel her into the history books.

Burnt out by the travel and grind of the tour, missing home, and struggling with her mental health, the humble Aussie retreated back to Queensland.

She found solace in her close-knit family, her gaggle of dogs, and even played professional cricket for the Brisbane Heat. It was the purest reflection of her extraordinary athletic talent that Barty could switch between two professional sports without missing a beat.

When she returned to the tour in a small grass-court event in May of 2016, Barty had yet to break into the top 100 in the singles rankings. She had never made a WTA final or won a tour-level title either.

Asked early in her comeback what would make this second career satisfactory, the no-fuss Barty did not hesitate in her answer: "Winning."

Three years on, she is the No. 1 women's tennis player in the world.

Older, wiser and still just 23 years old, Barty has stormed up the rankings since her return, applying her all-court game that is reminiscent of Roger Federer's classical purity, to win her first major title at Roland Garros and become the first Australian woman since Evonne Goolagong Cawley in 1976 to claim the No. 1 ranking.

Barty's march to the top sees her leading the WTA Tour in both titles (3) and wins (36-5).

(Naomi) Osaka became the first Asian woman to hold the WTA top spot and (Ashleigh) Barty, the 27th WTA No. 1, reclaimed the spot for Australia. This marks the first time the top two players in the world hailed from the Asia-Pacific.

After years of dominance by the tour's veterans, highlighted by 37-year-old Serena Williams, Angelique Kerber, Simona Halep, Caroline Wozniacki and Petra Kvitova, the women's game has seen the stark and sudden rise of the game's youth and exciting glimpse into the tour's future, which is less a promise and more of a reality.

So far this season, the average age of tournament champions is 23.6, the youngest average age since 2008 and a marked drop from last year's average of 25.6.

The last three major titles have been won by players aged 23 and under, with Japan's Naomi Osaka, 21, winning the 2018 US Open and the 2019 Australian Open, and Barty, 23, taking Roland Garros.

In addition, 2019 has seen the emergence of not just one or two young standouts, but a sea of major champions-in-waiting.

Switzerland's Belinda Bencic, 22, leads the tour in wins over top 5 (5-1) and top 10 (8-4) opposition, blasting through four top 10 players to win the Dubai Championships in February and is now knocking on the door of the top 10.

The 18-year-old Canadian sensation Bianca Andreescu shocked the world in her title run at the BNP Paribas Open in Indian Wells.

This season, the tour has seen four titles won by teenagers, highlighted by 17-year-old American Amanda Anisimova, who won her first WTA title in Bogota before dismantling defending champion Halep in Paris to make her first major semi-final.

She was joined by 19-year-old Czech lefty Marketa Vondrousova, who did one better by making the Roland Garros final, the first teen to make a major final in 10 years.

As a result, five of the top 10 women on the Porsche Race to Shenzhen leaderboard, which tracks the qualification process for the WTA Finals, are aged 23 and under: Barty, Osaka, Bencic, Vondrousova and Andreescu.

The youth in revolt are not shy on talent or ambition.

"I think our generation, we were a little bit more shy," Halep said.

"Now, this generation, they have more courage, and they fight with any other player at the top. They don't have thoughts that they are under them. They have courage, and they go for it every match.

"So I appreciate them. It's good for tennis because we see that the young players are in the top fast."

Women's tennis has always been a sport of youth cycles. But a trend that lacks precedent is the shift in the tour's power axis at the top to the Asia-Pacific.

Prior to Osaka's rise to No. 1 after winning the Australian Open in January, just one of the first 25 WTA No.1s hailed from outside Europe, America, or Russia.

Osaka became the first Asian woman to hold the WTA top spot and Barty, the 27th WTA No. 1, reclaimed the spot for Australia. This marks the first time the top two players in the world hailed from the Asia-Pacific.

"It's just really nice to kind of have that difference and have people from different parts of the world winning tournaments," Barty said.

"I think it's just an incredible showing for how tennis has really become a global sport. It's amazing that more and more people are picking up a racket all around the world.

"Yes, it's been dominated by both the US and Europe over the last little while, but it's just really exciting to know that tennis is really becoming a global sport for women. It's becoming a genuine career option."

• Courtney Nguyen is the senior writer for WTA Insider and host of the WTA Insider Podcast.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on July 01, 2019, with the headline 'Young stars not shy on talent or ambition'. Print Edition | Subscribe