How the love returned for all-conquering Barty
WHEN Ash Barty returned to tennis she was unfit and had plenty of work to get back to her best. But there was something in her eyes that told story - she was ready to tackle the world.
CRAIG Tyzzer will never forget the look.
Sitting with Ashleigh Barty in early 2016, Tyzzer addressed the elephant in the room. He wanted to know how committed the former prodigy was to pursuing a second tennis career.
He didn't have to wait long for the response.
"The first thing when she actually approached me was 'I'm thinking of giving this another go', and I said 'OK, If you're deadly serious'," Tyzzer said.
"And the look she gave me, I knew she was pretty serious."
Tyzzer is one of those rare tennis beasts - affable, armed with an imposing tennis intellect, yet without a hint of the ego that marks out many on circuit.
Much like master coaches Darren Cahill and Tony Roche, he's also the type of character people gravitate to. And can lean on in troubled times.
Jason Stoltenberg sought out Tyzzer in 2014 when Barty was going through a hellish phase.
Tyzzer instinctively sensed Barty's struggles. In truth, few understood the depth of the issues confronting the wallowing teenager.
Tyzzer marvels now at the transformation Barty underwent in the almost two years she was away - joking at how he might have contributed to her flight back to her family's bosom in 2014.
"When 'Stolts' was working with her, he brought me on and I was actually working with her on the clay (in 2014) right before she retired," Tyzzer said.
"So I think I probably put her into retirement as well (smiling).
"But she was completely different when she came back."
Simplicity has long been the keynote of Barty's game. Her style dovetailed with Tyzzer's.
But there was a price to be paid. Barty was out of shape, but more than willing to make the sacrifices.
"I think she just wanted to get back and play," Tyzzer said.
"She missed tennis. We went straight into a 12-week training block.
"She'd done zero fitness in her time off.
"I said to her 'This will be your test to see if you want it' because it was 12 weeks' training in Melbourne, solid every day.
"She took it all in her stride.
"As soon as we were through the first week and she was exhausted, I could see that she was deadly serious about coming back."
Tyzzer watched as Barty's resolve was repeatedly tested at Melbourne Park during brutal early stages.
There were specific tennis drills but the focus, as it had to be, was getting Barty fit again.
If Tyzzer needed answers, Barty had them - and some questions, too.
Much like the puzzle-solving mentality she brings to on-court combat, Barty was already two steps ahead.
She had bought into the pain of rebuilding her body. But what really intrigued her was how she could improve her game.
"We were at the National Tennis Centre," Tyzzer said. "And the first question she asked me was 'From the last time you saw me, what do you think I need to improve on as a tennis player?'
"So I set that out for her and she showed me what she thought and it almost matched. So that was very encouraging."
Tyzzer built a program for Barty. They would get through that first three months and reassess.
In Barty's mind, returning to the circuit was a fait accompli, with just one caveat.
"If I'm doing something, I want to do it well," she said of her perfectionist streak.
"I want to try to do it as best I can and that's always come very naturally to me.
"It (getting back to tennis) was just a kind of natural progression, a lot of different elements.
"Missing the one-on-one competition, I've always loved tennis, I really have.
"I was drawn back to it, talking with Casey (Dellacqua), the memories that we had.
"We have so many incredible memories, some heartbreaking ones as well.
"Some of my best friends in life are on tour and I miss spending time with them and growing those relationships as well.
"I never closed the door."
WE'LL DO IT MY WAY
AS TYZZER and manager Nikki Craig worked to ensure there was family support on tour with Barty where possible, the repatriated player had one edict.
"I wanted to do it on my terms," she said.
Tyzzer respected that.
But without a ranking, the former star who had agents and former champions drooling over her easy power and innate match sense as a 15-year-old, was at the bottom of a steep mountain.
Tyzzer dialled back expectations, conditioning himself to modest gains.
The upside was there was no pressure.
The pair flew to Eastbourne, where she would play qualifying in a $50,000 tournament on the third tier of the professional game.
The last tournament Barty had contested before retirement was at Flushing Meadows in New York - there is no glitzier or louder tournament on the planet than the US Open.
Devonshire Park, set among stately houses and retirement villages on England's south coast, could not be further removed from the brashest grand slam of the lot.
In truth, it was the perfect tournament setting. Quiet, unobtrusive - and on grass.
It was almost a mirror image of Barty's self-effacing personality.
"Ash was so excited about coming back to play," Tyzzer said.
"I knew her level, where it was at, at that stage.
"We'd actually gone to Kooyong and played a couple of practice matches on grass.
"So to come here (Eastbourne) I felt pretty comfortable because there were no expectations and she had no ranking.
"I just said to her 'This is where we start, let's see where we're at.'
"I was thinking she would probably get through a couple of matches - and she qualified and went through to the semis.
"She did the same in the doubles and it was too much tennis.
"She hadn't played much tennis going in.
"And then we went through to Nottingham the next week, she qualified and went through to the quarters there.
"And then her arm blew up. She got bone stress just from the sheer volume of balls she was hitting.
"And yet the last six weeks of her training block, she hit way more balls than that but it's so different in a match.
"So she was out and we had to take a month off and did another six to eight week block before she played again."
If Tyzzer was stoic ahead of Barty's resumption, she was anything but.
"I was very nervous," she recalled.
"I didn't even know if I'd get in the draw. I only got in because it wasn't full.
"I remember at the end of that week my body was shot. It feels like yesterday we were there but in the same breath it also feels like it was a lifetime ago."
Barty's comeback stalled after just two tournaments but she was undeterred.
She was doing it her way.
And, as she reflected on the previous two years, she appreciated how the experiences of living a normal life in Ipswich had been so restorative.
And now, with a clearer understanding of what tennis meant, the sabbatical made sense.
"I think for me it was a bit of a no-brainer. I needed to take the break," she said.
"Otherwise I don't think that I'd still be playing the game, to be honest.
"I think it gave me an opportunity to go and relax and see kind of what it was like to kind of have a normal life, because the tennis tour and the tennis life is very unique. It's very different. It's not for everybody.
"So I think I needed to take some time to step back and realise how much that I wanted it and how much that I do love it.
"I came back with a different perspective. I really did."
Barty finished 2016 ranked 325. Things were falling into place - and far quicker than anybody understood.
Tyzzer and Craig have long been aware of Barty's driven nature so neither was surprised by what unfolded in 2017 as the rebuild accelerated.
After losing to world No.1 Angelique Kerber in the third round of the Brisbane International, Barty posted a career-best third-round showing at the Australian Open.
THE WINNING BEGINS
IN MARCH, Barty slipped into overdrive, winning her maiden singles title in Kuala Lumpur, adding the doubles for good measure with Dellacqua.
"I think it's been a success for us, the start (of 2017), more successful than we thought," Barty said at the time.
"It's a tribute to all the work we did in the off-season, and last year, coming back.
"It hasn't quite been 12 months since I started playing singles again. I'm certainly happy to be back.
"It's been a monster week for me.
"I don't think I could have physically have played any more matches. I'm very happy to come away with two titles today, but even if we didn't it would have been a fantastic tournament anyway.
"Now it's just an absolute bonus."
It was impressive, but merely the start.
Spurred on by two more doubles titles with Dellacqua in Strasbourg and Birmingham, Barty excelled throughout the British grasscourt season.
With a march to Birmingham decider - the same tournament where Barty ultimately clinched the world No.1 ranking last week - she underlined just how genuine her comeback was.
Winning the Newcombe Medal was icing on the cake.
Barty was back and the ghosts of 2013-14 were vanishing.
But relevance of the sabbatical never dimmed.
"Absolutely not," Barty said.
"I don't even know if I'd be sitting here talking to you if I was playing tennis if I didn't step away.
"It's obviously a part of my life that I needed to deal with, and I feel like it was the best decision that I made at the time, and it was an even better one coming back.
"I never closed any doors, saying 'I'm never playing tennis again.'
"For me, I needed time to step away, to live a normal life, because this tennis life certainly isn't normal. I think I needed time to grow as a person, to mature.
"I left all of my options open. I think it was just a natural progression for me coming back to tennis.
"I was still involved in tennis every single day, working with Jim (Joyce), my coach. We were coaching every day. I was still hitting balls, just not for myself.
"Certainly it's (tennis) always been a big part of my life. Tennis will always be a big part of my life."
What drew Barty back - apart from the friendships - was the purity of gladiatorial competition.
"I just missed the one-on-one battle, the ebbs and the flows, the emotions you get from winning and losing matches," she said.
"They are so unique and you can only get them when you're playing and when you put yourself out on the line and when you become vulnerable and try and do things that no one thinks of."
LOOKING AFTER THE PLAYER
TYZZER SAYS tennis has habit, as one of the most cut-throat sports of all, of expecting the world from kids yanked out of school to take on adults.
When he first started working with Barty, he was struck by two things - prodigious skills and an inability to cope with peripheral demands.
"I thought she was a young, really talented tennis player," Tyzzer said.
"But she was a bit overawed by everything.
"Jason (Stoltenberg) and I talked a lot about her and the expectations with me about her, travelling with her.
"I just think she didn't cope with a lot of situations that come with tennis which we just expect a 16-17 year old kid just be able to handle.
"Sitting in front of media, TV, we think they can all do it, Ash just wasn't able to."
As Barty's comeback gained impetus, Tyzzer and Craig were shrewd enough to stand back from bald results and analyse how the person - rather than the player - was coping.
"People handle things differently," Tyzzer said.
"The beauty of tennis is that you walk out there and all there are all these different players and you see how they handle things.
"Ash has learnt to cope and a lot of that is because who she has brought on board.
"She's brought in (mentor) Ben Crowe and he has done a great job helping her distinguish between playing tennis and all the other stuff that goes with it.
"She realises it doesn't have to affect you. Pressure is a word. It is there but if you let it affect it does and if you don't, it doesn't."
The process-driven dynamics of Barty's entourage are instructive.
When they travelled down the M40 from Birmingham to Eastbourne with the world No.1 secured as a punctuation mark to wondrous French Open triumph, Barty and her team barely talked tennis.
The highest-ranked woman on the planet stopped en route to grab a takeaway meal, having shared a few beers in the player cafe with opponent and friend Julia Goerges.
There was clear separation between business and pleasure.
For Tyzzer and Craig, it was further evidence of Barty's faculty for switching between business and relaxation.
"I think first of all you have to get to know your athlete and what they need with regard to tournament and match-play," Tyzzer said.
"We don't spend all of our time together.
"Sometimes we switch off, tournament-wise it's pretty process driven and it's pretty matter of fact what we need to do.
"Then we have times we completely switch off and not talk about tennis. (We talk) Football, cricket, golf - you name it.
"I think it's just understanding what Ash needs to play better tennis."
Well before Barty enlisted with Brisbane Heat, where she retains "friends I'll have for life", she routinely referred to herself as "we."
Pushed this week to elaborate, she was asked if the plural reference stemmed from cricket.
"No, it's something I've picked up from having an incredible team around me, to be honest," she said.
"The people who are with me, day in, day out, have been with me for the last three years.
"They've been working together and we're all on the same page about how we wanted to get there and it's been an incredible sacrifice from them for their time that they've invested into my career.
"The passion that they give to be the best version of myself has been incredible."
Soon after Barty etched her name in history at Roland Garros, Tyzzer showed Barty a tweet showing her as the world No.632 almost three years to the day in 2016.
"Tyzze' just showed me that," Barty said in Paris.
"It's remarkable. Feels like just yesterday that we started, jumped on the plane to come over here to start again. So much has happened in between.
"I have grown as a person and obviously as a player, as well.
"But I have had some heartbreaking moments. I've had some amazing moments. But all in all, I have enjoyed every single minute.
"I think that's been the biggest thing, that I haven't had one ounce of regret.
"I felt like when I came back, it was my decision, we did it my way, and, yeah, it's paying dividends."
ON TOP OF THE WORLD
THE REWARDS have flowed as never before this season.
With 36 victories in 41 matches, title success in three of the five biggest tournaments of 2019 and $7.3 million in prizemoney, and now status as world No.1, Barty is flying.
But there is no magic formula or secret ingredient.
Barty and her team, which includes physical conditioner Mark 'Beefy' Taylor with regular input from Jim Joyce and Jason Stoltenberg, have chipped away rather than blasted.
For Barty, it has been a voyage of discovery.
"Oh, I think tennis is a very unique sport, that it can happen very quickly and when a lot of girls and guys are at a very young age," she said.
"I mean, you can play professionally when you're 13 or 14, I think, officially.
"So I think it's about creating your own path, creating your own journey, and embracing it. There's no formula how to become a professional tennis player.
"It's your own, it's unique, your own journey, your own path, your own experiences.
"I think the best thing to do is learn from your mistakes, learn from every single experience that you have, whether it's good or bad.
"That's the only way to go about it, only way to grow as a person and as a player.
"I think first and foremost is that we've got a pretty amazing world that we live in the tennis world. It's remarkable.
"We come to beautiful cities and play in front of thousands of people who genuinely love this sport.
"And for us it's about going out there and trying to entertain those people and trying to fulfil our dreams."
As Barty and those closest to her are only too aware, it wasn't always that way.
Whatever unfolds in the future, Barty will be forever celebrated as the archetypal "old school" Australian player.
Competing fiercely but with style - and a smile - was once the signature brand when Australia ruled the sport.
Barty had the bravery to face her demons while others mindlessly trashed personal and national reputation in fell swoops.
"I think a new perspective in my life and in my career, it's brought this new belief, I suppose, and this feeling of belonging at the very top level," she said.
"I feel like I'm playing some really good tennis. I know when I play my best tennis, I can match it against the world's best.
"It was always the goal is to come back and try and put myself in a position where I'm playing against the world's best and competing against the world's best.
"But when I had my time off, I think it was just a gradual progression of missing the competition, missing what I loved.
"I love this sport, and I'm very lucky to be in the position I am now. With an amazing team around me, we're enjoying it, having a lot of fun, having some amazing results."
When Barty ventured to Paris last month for the French Open, it was in the wake of the only match she laments this season.
Beaten in Rome by Kristina Mladenovic, Barty withdrew from Strasbourg because of arm soreness and headed to Roland Garros more in hope than expectation.
What unfolded was extraordinary.
As others imploded in fits of anger and rancour, Barty was surrounded by a surreal sense of calm as she sliced through the draw.
"It's quiet in my mind," she said of a tumultuous tournament.
"I'm not one that spends too much time on-site. Usually I come in and kind of do what I need to do and get out pretty quickly.
"It's been nice to be here when I have needed to be, to play, to prepare, and have loved every single minute of that.
"But also, I feel like I have done a really good job of switching off this week.
"Enjoying the other sports and interests that I have that are going on around the world at the moment to make sure it's not always just about tennis, not always about me, always keeping contact with my family and keeping that very normal."
Remarkably, Barty maintained the mindset even when trailing Amanda Anisimova by a set and a service break in the semis before surging into the final.
Once there, confronted with nerve-stricken Marketa Vondrousova, Barty produced "the perfect tennis match, considering the situation, the conditions, and kind of all of the above. It was amazing."
The first thing Barty did on smashing a winner to end 46 years of Australian heartbreak in Paris was to turn to her group and mouth a fruity phrase along the lines of "What the ….?"
As usual, triumph was not solely about her.
The entourage which nurtured her second attempt was front and centre.
"It's a celebration of not just these two weeks but the last two or three years for myself and my team," Barty said.
"I have an extraordinary group of genuine, authentic people around me.
"This is just a bi-product of what we've been able to do, all the work that we have done, and it's incredible and I'm speechless.
"For the last fortnight, the stars have aligned for me. I have been able to play really good tennis when I've needed it.
"This is just incredible. I never dreamt that I'd be sitting here with this trophy here at the French Open. I mean, obviously we have dreams and goals as children, but this is incredible.
"I'm not the only person out here. I have an extraordinary group of people around me. I love working with them every single day, day in, day out. "They're with me at the hardest times of my life, and they're with me in some of the most amazing times.
"To get to No 1 is mind-boggling. It's surreal."
For Tyzzer, Craig, Taylor and co, it's nothing less than one of international sport's most talented, disciplined and nicest people deserves.
PART II: Barty reaches her break point