Enjoying a Cinderella run at this year's Wuhan Open is 21-year-old Ashleigh Barty. To get to the semifinal stage, the Australian had to defeat a Grand Slam-like roster of seeds including #5 Johanna Konta, #9 Agnieszka Radwanska and #3 Karolina Pliskova. Not too long ago, such results would've been unthinkable.
Winning Junior Wimbledon in 2011, Barty initially made a splash on the women's tour in doubles, reaching the finals of the Australian, Wimbledon and US Open in 2013 with partner Casey Dellacqua. With increased attention and lagging results in singles, the then 18-year-old simply decided to walk away from tennis with no definite plans to return. In her time away, Barty actually spent six months playing professional cricket.
After nearly 20 months off the tour, a 20-year-old Barty finally returned mid-2016, but played in only two WTA-level events in singles on grass. This year has been her first full schedule back. Barty started the year ranked #271 but has since climbed up to a career-high #37 on the basis of winning her first tournament in Kuala Lumpur in March (while also taking the doubles), together with wins over top players including Garbine Muguruza and Venus Williams. “This time last year feels like a very long time ago. I was still very much struggling with my arm, with my injuries. It's been nice this year to have a really consistent year,” she said after defeating Pliskova. “The body's held up really well. I feel great. Even though it's been a long season and a very successful season, it's been really good throughout. I think maybe deep down we knew some of these results were possible, but I don't think quite having the consistency throughout the year that we've had, I really thought was possible, no.”
With her results at the Wuhan Open, she’s projected to rise to at least #26 next week. When told she could even pull ahead of Serena Williams at #23 if she wins her semifinal match, she laughed: “That's not fair. Serena hasn't played. You can't say that. You can't say that!”
On Friday, Barty will have to take out a fourth consecutive seed, either #1 Garbine Muguruza or #8 Jelena Ostapenko if she is to progress to the final of the Wuhan Open for a chance at her biggest title to date. But with wins over top players already this week, the young Australian isn’t worried. “For me, it's just another match, just another opponent. We try to approach it the exact same way no matter who I'm playing… It will be a good match either way. I've played both of those girls this year and had some cracking matches with them both. So I think it will be an exciting match.”
Whatever happens in the semifinals, it’s clear that Ashleigh Barty is back and better than ever before.