Multi-talented Barty's return to court a loss for cricket
By Ian Ransom
MELBOURNE (Reuters) - Ashleigh Barty's short stint as a professional cricketer has helped the former Wimbledon junior champion refresh for the grind of the tennis tour, according to her cricket coach Andy Richards.
The 19-year-old Australian announced her return to the court on Monday, 17 months after stunning her home country by quitting the game that promised so much for her.
Barty's second stab at her first love has been warmly welcomed by local players and tennis fans alike, but the door will always be open for a return to cricket given the aptitude she showed for the team game.
"She could have played cricket for Australia inside 12 months," Richards, her coach at Queensland Fire and Brisbane Heat, told Reuters on Tuesday.
"She's one of those unique individuals who is multi-talented. She made the transition very, very easily ... I'd be more than happy to have her back."
Unranked, Barty will ease back into tennis this week by playing doubles at a $25,000 event in Perth on the second-tier ITF circuit.
Her 2011 girls title at Wimbledon at the age of 15 raised hopes in Australia she might one day become a grand slam singles champion.
As it turned out, she enjoyed more initial success in doubles.
A stellar 2013 saw her pair up with compatriot Casey Dellacqua and make the women's doubles finals at three of the four grand slams.
There were more modest returns the following season and she walked away from the game after the 2014 U.S. Open having pocketed over $930,000 in prize money.
It was not long before the competitive fires raged again and Richards was immediately impressed by the teenager who pitched up in Brisbane for a first crack at Australia's favourite team sport.
"I chucked her on a bowling machine. She hit about 150-odd balls and didn't nick any of them. Middled most of them. It was quite startling, even if she wasn't technically correct," he said.
"Hitting thousands of tennis balls is a perfect base for cricket."
Barty was soon training with the state team and within a few months had earned one of only 14 professional contracts for the Brisbane Heat, a franchise in the domestic women's Big Bash Twenty20 competition.
She blasted 39, a good score in T20 cricket, in her debut match in December, smashing one shot over the boundary at Melbourne's Junction Oval for six runs.
Richards reckoned she might be only one of about 10 women in the country who could actually hit a six.
Although top men's cricketers are among Australia's highest paid athletes, the game remains a labour of love for all but a handful of women, and Barty's contract was worth only a few thousand dollars.
Had she made the national team, earned performance bonuses and enjoyed some level of sponsorship, she might have reaped A$80,000 ($56,000) from a year of cricket.
That might be enough to focus on the game full-time but is not much of an inducement for a teenager who has already earned nearly a million dollars in tennis.
"She can go on the doubles circuit (and), if you perform well there, you can get half a million bucks, I guess," said Richards with a sigh.
"It's not an easy lifestyle, travelling the world on the circuit. I don’t know if she was looking forward to (that) but I think she has a bit more control now.
"I'm sure she'll go really well back in tennis. For the time being we're more than happy to play second fiddle."
(Editing by Nick Mulvenney)