PARIS (Reuters) - As far as “secrets to my success” tales go, Ashleigh Barty’s is pretty special.
Yes, there was the endless hours of hitting drills. Forehands, backhands, volleys, serves.
There was the dedication to success, the willingness to live a peripatetic lifestyle, flitting from country to country, rarely settling anywhere for long. A sacrifice of normal life.
But at least some of that came a little later. First was Barty’s masterstroke — dumping tennis life and swapping her racket for a bat, and a year playing professional Big Bash Cricket in Australia.
“I don't even know if I'd be sitting here talking to you if I didn't step away,” she smiled on Saturday, sitting next to the French Open trophy she had just won.
“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.”
The decision was to quit the tennis tour after the 2014 U.S. Open.
Having ended 2011 as the world’s second-ranked junior, she played as a professional for three years, with little big-time success. Her Grand Slam record in those three years was seven first-round losses, and three two second-round defeats.
What followed was an almost-two-year break which included a successful stint as an all-rounder for the Brisbane Heat cricket team in the 2015-16 Big Bash League.
She returned to tennis in June 2016 with a world ranking of 623.
Today, as she glances at her Roland Garros trophy, Barty sits as world number two, the highest ranking achieved by an Australian women since Evonne Goolagong in 1976.
“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,” the 23-year-old Australian said.
“I think I needed time to grow as a person, to mature. I left all of my options open.”
And part of that growth was building relationships with her cricket team mates.
“It truly was an amazing period of my life. Probably more so I met an amazing group of people who couldn't care less whether I could hit a tennis ball or not.
“They accepted me, and they got to know Ash Barty. I still have those relationships to this very day.
“I got an amazing amount of messages over the last couple of days from those cricket girls who were some of my best friends.
“They are truly an incredible group of girls that I know I'll have a friendship with for the rest of my life.”
But while the camaraderie of team sport soothed something in her psyche, the cut and thrust of individual competition was something she missed.
“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, my coach. I was still hitting balls, just not for myself," Barty said.
“Overall, it's just -- I miss the competition. I miss the one-on-one battle, the ebbs and the flows, the emotions you get from winning and losing matches.
“They are so unique and you can only get them when you're playing and when you become vulnerable and try and do things that no one thinks of.”
On Saturday’s showing, it would appear she will experience the emotions of winning more than the emotions of losing in her second stint as a tennis professional.
(EDiting by Ed Osmond)