As Naomi Osaka stood in front of cheering crowds at Melbourne Park to give the customary winner's speech last weekend, her poise, her body language, the words of encouragement to her opponent, left no room for doubt that she is tennis' new superstar.
With four Grand Slam singles titles in the past three years, a level of consistency no other player on the women's circuit has shown in that period, Osaka should by all rights be the World No 1. But she is not. Instead, for the past eighteen months, a period in which she has won no titles of any kind, that heavy mantle has rested on the shoulder of an extraordinary young woman of Aboriginal origin, a rarity in Australian sport.
Make no mistake, Ashleigh Barty is a rare sporting talent. She rose to be among the crÃ¨me de la crÃ¨me of women's tennis, then got bored with the sport and took a break from the courts. She then played cricket at the Women's BBL. Duly rejuvenated, she then waltzed through the field to win the 2019 French Open, and as just reward for her consistency, ended the year at World No 1.
This time her occasional romance with tennis lasted until the pandemic swept the world last year. During the lockdowns that we all faced in 2020, sportspersons used whatever space they had at their disposal " gardens, garages, empty beaches, the river banks " to stay fit and practice their sport as best they could. All except Ash Barty.
When competitive tennis returned during the year in secure bio bubble environments, Barty chose to pick up her golf clubs instead, setting out to prove her prowess at yet another sport. And she did. On a course designed by Greg Norman, she claimed the Brookwater Golf Club women's title near Brisbane, with a commanding 7 and 5 triumph in the matchplay final.
When asked why she wasn't returning to competition in the sport where she currently stood at the pinnacle, Barty cited her lack of preparedness. For good measure, she added that her health and the safety of her family and team were paramount, so she didn't want to travel. Fair enough, or 'no dramas mate', as the Aussies would say.
It didn't however prevent her from showing up on the terraces of the Gabba in Brisbane¦. to watch an Australian Football League playoff game. Pictures of Ash Barty rising to her feet in the crowded stadium, sans social distancing, pumping her fist while holding a cup of beer in the other hand, went viral on social media in Australia. Fans hailed "a true icon."
No one in the world would have cared, but for a little administrative detail called modified protective ranking that the tennis authorities had felt obliged to introduce while the pandemic had shut down sport. Under these conditions (originally meant for injured players, and modified for COVID), both injuries and unwillingness to play citing health concerns would allow players to retain points earned in 2019 despite not appearing at the particular tournament in 2020. However, if a player did show up, this protection disappeared, and their points depended on the performance at the current edition of the tournament.
The curious case of Ash Barty has now turned this well-meaning rule into a heavy cross on the shoulders of players who braved the pandemic to play the sport they love. They survived the discomfort and lonely existence of bubbles and the hard quarantines, but have struggled to deal with the modified protected ranking conditions. None more so than Simona Halep and Naomi Osaka.
Halep, like many of the players around the world who were nervous about the surge in COVID cases in the United States, decided to avoid the trip to New York. Instead, she concentrated on the clay court swing in Europe. She won first the Prague Open and then the Italian Open after weeks of struggling through new health protocols at minor tournaments across Europe. In her first tournament back, she beat third-seed Elise Marten, and at Rome she stormed past World No 4 Karolina Pliskova. With that, Halep moved up to World No 2. Her next two targets were the title at the pandemic delayed French Open, and the year-end top spot in the WTA rankings.
She achieved neither. The first was her own failing, as she was felled in the fourth round at Roland Garros by unseeded Iga Swiatek of Poland. By all rights Halep's second target should have been automatic, because she had the highest points among active players in the WTA. But that's where the harsh reality of the protected ranking came into play. Despite the fact that Ash Barty had not stepped outside Australia in nine months nor played any tennis in the interim, as the defending French Open champion, Barty retained her points and ended the year at World No 1.
Fast forward to February 2021.
Naomi Osaka had not played at the French Open in 2020, but a month before that, ranked 9th in the world, she had won her third Grand Slam singles title at Flushing Meadows. Gaining 2000 valuable points at her home Grand Slam, she crept quietly moved up the rankings. By the time Osaka stepped on to the court in Melbourne for the Gippsland Trophy, one of the lesser tournaments that preceded the Australian Open, she had moved up to third in the WTA rankings.
At the Australian Open, facing the most difficult field that women's tennis could throw up, Osaka came into her own and showed us why she wears the mantle of 'superstar' so lightly on her shoulders. Blazing through a list of opponents that counted former Grand Slam title winner Garbine Muguruza and 23-time title winner at the highest level of women's tennis " Serena Williams, Osaka brushed aside the challenge of giant killer Su-Wei Hsieh, and imperiously dispatched the talented Jennifer Brady. With a demure smile on her face, the young Japanese stood composedly at the microphone last Sunday, holding up her fourth Grand Slam title.
With the 2000 points she picked up with her second Major title in six months, Osaka had now moved 600 points clear of Simona Halep to the top of the WTA ranking pile. Well, not quite. For firmly entrenched at No 1 was Ash Barty who had played her first tournament in a year the week before the Australian Open and bowed out at the quarter-finals at Melbourne park.
What was mind boggling was that Barty's 1351 points lead over Naomi Osaka and 1931 points over Simona Halep was due almost entirely to tournaments she had played (and done well at) over a year before.
Barty has been ranked No 1 in the world from 9 September, 2019. Since then she has won one tournament in October 2019 at Shenzhen and by the time the next title at Yarra Valley bore her name, it had been a year since the young Australian had set foot on a tournament court. In a decision that is rightfully her own to take, she had chosen health over sport.
The pandemic has impacted each and every one of us. But it has been particularly difficult for elite sportspersons, with the demands of performing consistently at their physical and mental peak while staying away for months from their families, living in bio bubbles, and enduring hard quarantines in country after country. This is even before we consider the stress of continual COVID testing and dealing with the daily possibility of infection, despite taking all precautions. Yet, these young men and women have braved all odds to ply their craft and give us the succour of sports in the midst of the worst pandemic in a century. For that we should be very grateful to them. We may not realize it, but we owe as much to them for our mental health, as we do to frontline health workers for ensuring our physical well-being in these difficult times.
It is in this backdrop that some questions need to be asked about the WTA rankings system and the impact of COVID rules that impact it. There is no doubt about the fact that the situation the skewed rankings present today in women's tennis is not Ash Barty's doing. She has merely been a beneficiary of it. Having said that, when a World No 1 in any sport stays atop at the rankings for 73-weeks straight, one needs to take a close look at what has ensued in that time and question the flawed system in force that has perpetuated it.
The modified protected rankings in tennis have been in place for both men and women. Novak Djokovic has occupied the top spot on the ATP table since 03 February 2020. He has played nine tournaments across three continents in that time, braving travel and bio bubbles. The Serb has won four of them, lost in the finals at Roland Garros and the semi-finals of the year ending tournament at London. Clearly, he deserves to be in the pole position.
The question that Osaka could be forgiven for asking today, is " does Ash Barty?