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An Aussie Rules

Ashleigh Barty’s inspiring journey to the top of her game

Ashleigh Barty is the second Indigenous Australian to win Wimbledon’s single’s title. Pic: Creative Commons/si.robi

After what seems like an eternity with no meaningful sport to speak of, we’re really in the thick of it now aren’t we?

The Olympics are on the horizon, and Paul O’Donovan, along with his new crewmate Fintan McCarthy, seems primed to bring an Olympic medal to Skibbereen again. The ever-present Mayo football bandwagon is up and rolling and looking promising again. The English football team managed to build the hopes of a nation that has been waiting since 1066 or thereabouts, and lose on penalties yet again. The Lions have made it to South Africa, although don’t be surprised if by the time you’re reading this they’re on the way home again. At the French Open and Wimbledon, Novak Djokovic did what he does and won again, and again.

But after saying again so many times in the last paragraph, I want to talk about something new, something that happened for the first time, but that has roots. Roots that go back five weeks, five years and ten years. And roots that go back 50 years and 50,000 years.

Ashleigh Barty won the Ladies Singles at Wimbledon for the first time. ‘Big deal’, you might say, ‘the world number one wins a tournament’. And in many ways you’d be right. But I hope you’ll forgive me indulging in a little bit of Australian pride, and giving a small history lesson in the process.

Barty comes from Ipswich in Queensland, her mother’s family from England. Her father is a member of the Ngaragu people, the indigenous people of southern New South Wales and northern Victoria. Ngaragu, Indigenous, Aboriginal. Barty has roots that goes back at least 50,000 years on Australian soil, in the oldest continuous culture on earth.

Anyone who has read anything about Australian history knows that the indigenous people have suffered immensely since the arrival of British settlers in 1788. And still do, with life expectancies ten years lower than their non-indigenous neighbours. Aboriginal people make up 3 percent of the population, but account for almost 30 percent of the prison population. The history is long and proud; the recent history is tortured.

Fifty years ago, another woman won Wimbledon for the first time. The first Australian to do so. Her name is Evonne Goolagong Cawley. From Barellan in southern New South Wales, Evonne Goolagong is a Wiradjuri woman. She too is an indigineous Australian, and Ash Barty’s idol, mentor and friend.

That Evonne Goolagong won Wimbledon in 1971, after also winning the French Open is remarkable when you consider Aboriginal Australians were only given the right to vote in 1962. The story goes that a young Evonne used to peer through the tennis-court fence before being invited in. Goolagong went on to win seven grand slam single titles and is an Australian icon. Her success helped paved the way, still not entirely smooth or equal, for other young indigenous Australians to rise to the top of their sports.

Ten years ago, Ash Barty won the Wimbledon junior title in 2011 at 15 years of age. Footage of her then shows a slightly smaller version of her now. A ready-made champion with an all-court game and a slice backhand that would have even Steffi Graf purring. But winning the Wimbledon juniors is no guarantee of future success. Roger Federer won in 1998, and we all know him. Wesley Whitehouse was the previous winner. Who?

Five years ago, in 2016, Barty returned to tennis. Returned? Barty announced in 2014 that she was taking time away from tennis. She admitted to being burnt out from the rigours of touring and stated, “I wanted to experience life as a normal teenage girl and have some normal experiences.”

So she took time out, and while doing so decided for a bit of a challenge she might play some cricket. With no background in the game, and in little to no time, she was playing professional cricket for the Brisbane Heat in the Women’s Big Bash League. At the time, there was no guarantee she would return to tennis.

Then, five weeks ago, in the second round of the French Open, Barty had to withdraw with a hip injury just 24 days before the start of Wimbledon. According to her team she could barely walk for several days, couldn’t practice for ten, and couldn’t serve until a few days before the tournament. Round-the-clock work from Barty, her physio and physical performance coach got her to the starting line. History did the rest.

Unfortunately, there isn’t likely to be an Irish woman the draw at this year’s US Open. Perhaps you might like to join my Barty Party?

This post was first published in The Mayo News

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