ion the days before the start of the Miami Open, as male players fell from the entry list like flies, much of the discussion was around Novak Djokovic, Rafael Nadal and all those the tournament would be missing. Yet the first week in Miami has underlined a different sensation: the world No 1, Ashleigh Barty, is competing in her first overseas tournament since the pandemic began. The women’s tour feels whole again.
Barty’s decision not to compete last year because of her caution about travel led to a strange spectacle. As her foes competed at Roland Garros and empty stadiums across Europe, Barty could be seen with a beer in hand in AFL stadiums in support of Richmond. While players toiled from week to week in order to improve their rankings, the altered points system allowed Barty to rack up weeks at No 1 without lifting a finger, before she started playing again in Australia in January. Her 70 weeks at the top place her a week away from matching Caroline Wozniacki. Once she leapfrogs the Dane, only eight players will stand above her.
Barty’s journey to Florida has affirmed why she took her time. It took nearly 50 ore, with Barty flying from Brisbane to Sydney, Los Angeles and then Miami with two cancelled flights. The mandatory 14-day quarantine in Australia forced her to decide whether she would return home during the season – she has chosen to remain on the road, at least until the US Open, which starts at the end of August.
“Without a doubt it was something that was new to me, new to try and wrap my head around and comprehend where we’re going to be away for such an extended period,” says Barty. “Of course there were tears the days leading up. There were tears when I did finally leave, and then when we left. Then we were delayed and had to leave again. It was all kind of happening. But I’m certainly happy to be here now.”
A long period of uncertainty awaits Barty. After this week in Miami, she will follow the tour to Charleston and then Europe. But when it comes time to take a break, she has no base. Her solution is typical of her understated nature: “I’m sure I will make a few phone calls and call up some mates and see if we can crash at their place wherever they may be in the world. We are fortunate to have friends all around the world that played tennis previously or we know from kind of a personal side. But we’ll just kind of go with the flow a bit.”
Barty is far from the only person dealing with the challenges of frequently traveling during a pandemic. Other players from Australia and Asian countries with strong restrictions have been on the road since the start of the season and spend their off weeks peppered around the US and Europe. European players from countries outside the EU have been scattered around the globe when they would usually prefer to remain in Europe.
Britain’s Liam Broady, who has enjoyed the most consistent eight months of his career amid the chaos, explained how his schedule constantly changed with minimal notice. He was supposed to compete in Cherbourg, France, when travel restrictions changed for non-EU residents and he instead went to play qualifying in South Africa. He then planned for a tournament in Italy, yet he ended up in Egypt. He has conceded that he will probably not see his own bed again until the grass season in June.
“I guess that’s kind of what Covid is like,” says Broady. “Tennis life is very fluid, anyway, but with Covid even more so. You have to be ready for anything: cuts [tournament entry lists] to drop 20, 30 places and to up and go to the next week that you had no idea you were going to go to.”
As someone who usually plays fewer tournaments than her peers, always careful to return home as frequently as possible, this will be an interesting challenge for Barty. These long weeks and months on the road have taken their toll on certain players. Part of the challenge is simply remaining fresh.
For now, though, things are going smoothly. After saving a match point in her opening round against the world No 149, Kristina Kucova, the defending champion produced one of her best wins of her return in the fourth round by beating Victoria Azarenka 6-1, 1-6, 6-2 before she dismantled Aryna Sabalenka 6-4, 6-7 (5), 6-3 to return to another semi-final in Miami. Six months of opportunity await across Europe and the United States but Barty is already putting herself in a position to take them.
When asked how it feels to have finally departed from Australia, Barty shrugs. “The simple thing for me is the weather. You know, it’s blue skies, sun’s shining. We’re getting to play a sport that we love and we’re getting to do what we love.”