Tennis | Rising star Barty shines at Zhuhai after ace season

Zhuhai – Ashleigh Barty may have fallen to America's CoCo Vandeweghe in China this week, but the 21-year-old Australian has proven she's got what it takes to be a top player.

Barty, who had fired the highest number of aces by the end of the Elite Trophy semi-finals, was outside the top 300 this time last year but is set to finish the season at world number 17 after a string of wins.

Since June, she has recorded nine victories against top 20 players and came tantalisingly close to lifting the trophy at the recent Wuhan Open after reaching the final.

This week alone has seen her triumph over former world number one Angelique Kerber — a tough opponent who overpowered Barty at the Brisbane International — and Russia's Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova — both in straight sets.

"This year's certainly been a surprise… we've had some ripping tournaments," Barty, the youngest player at Zhuhai, told AFP.

"We sort of smashed a few of the goals quite early."

But the Australian didn't always find things so easy, and only came back to the sport in 2016 after a spell with the Brisbane Heat cricket team — a deliberate move to take a break from tennis.

For Barty, who made her Grand Slam debut at the Australian Open at age 15, the demands of the tour were too much to handle.

"2014 was a really tough year for me and I just needed to mentally just get away from tennis and be a normal sort of 17-18 year-old girl," she said.

"I didn't know how long the break would be, if I would come back to tennis, if I wouldn't," she added.

"I wasn't happy, and I just knew that I needed to step away if there was sort of a chance for me to keep playing."

Cricket turned out to be a welcome distraction, and a chance to meet some "cool chicks" outside of tennis.

But prior to her stint with Brisbane Heat, Barty admits that cricket wasn't even on her radar.

"I'd always mucked around playing backyard cricket… but had never had a lesson or anything like that so it was a completely new experience for me, a new challenge," she said.

Since her return to the tennis world, Barty hasn't looked back.

She dazzled at the Wuhan Open — seeing off former world number one Karolina Pliskova, Britain's Johanna Konta and French Open winner Jelena Ostapenko — to sail into her first ever Premier 5 tournament final.

She also recently overtook Daria Gavrilova to become Australia's highest ranked player — which will no doubt put her in the spotlight at the Australian Open in January.

Though Barty ultimately fell to Caroline Garcia at Wuhan, the tournament marked a turning point, or in her words, "a hell of a week".

"Probably since Wuhan it's been a bit of a change for me to play four or five, six really good matches in a row against quality opponents and really feel comfortable on the court," she told a press conference earlier in the week.

"So I think for me that week was a big week in my career, and, yeah, I just feel like now when I walk out on the court I'm comfortable and confident against whoever I play."

As for next year, Barty wants to focus on consolidating her spot in the top 20, with the goal of reaching a second week of a Grand Slam in singles.

But even as she warned against looking too far ahead, she couldn't rule out her chances of win.

"You have to take it match by match and it's two gruelling weeks of tennis," she told AFP.

"(But) if we do all the right preparations there's no reason why I can't."

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