Almanac Tennis: Watching Ash and Thinking About Stuff

Tennis fans, perhaps more than any other sports fans, have a habit of telling pretentious stories about the first time that they saw a young player. These stories often appear to imply that the teller has some kind of tennis-fan-superiority, the equivalent to those music fans who knew the band “before they sold out and got big”.


Despite this story beginning with the phrase “The first time I saw Ash Barty was when she was 14,” this is not one of those stories.




The first time I saw Ash Barty was when she was 14.


At the time, she was already being touted as a junior prodigy the likes of which Australia hadn’t seen in my lifetime. On that day, she came as advertised – a competitive, steely faced kid with a crafty yet surprisingly powerful game for someone of such small stature. It was her tactical approach that caused her to become an immediate favourite. In a world where the Williams sisters, Sharapova, Wozniacki and co were trying to slug or counter-slug each other off the court, Barty’s game appeared to hark back to a time where tennis was as much a game of tactics as it was brute force.


As it turned out, it wasn’t just my first glimpse of Barty that made that day memorable. For alongside it was a completely unrelated moment that occurred that morning and I have connected it to Ash ever since, in that strange, personal, bizarre way that sports fans so often do.


It was December 2010, and I caught the train to Melbourne on the first day of my summer holidays. At the time, I was teaching at a Victorian private school – the kind of institution that allowed its teachers and students to begin their summer break a week earlier than most. As always on the first day of the holidays, I was buzzing with a kind of exhausted excitement. I sat in Federation Square for a while that morning as the first day of the Australian Open Wild Card Playoff tournament that I was heading to was still an hour or so from starting.


As I sat and killed some time, I watched the ABC News on Fed Square’s big screen. The news that morning was from Russia where there were serious ethnic riots. I wrote about the moment a few years later:


Suddenly, I found myself looking around a quiet Federation Square where a few stragglers were grabbing a quiet drink or snack on their way to work. I couldn’t help but wonder just how Melbourne and Moscow could co-exist at that precise moment. How I could be the middle-class guy who was about to spend his day watching incredibly talented women thwack a ball at each other for a few hours for my entertainment. How those on the television were the guys who were about to spend their days in vicious riots.


“Perspective” is perhaps the most fascinating word that is used in relation to sport. That morning, I knew it was relevant to my situation, but I didn’t know exactly how. Should I see the tennis that I was about to view as being utterly meaningless as people my age in Russia were about to experience and instigate such violence? Or should my experience – exhibited on that day by the ability to peacefully enjoy life’s pleasures after a long year’s work – help to display just how ludicrous, shameful, wasteful and horrific racism and ethnic violence can be?


Every time I’ve watched Ash play in the years since, I think about those people in Russia. At some stage while I marvel at her decision-making and her penetrating slice backhand, I’ll think about innocent people whose streets are or have been infiltrated by such hate. I’ll think about how little I’ve heard about Russia since, and how I have no clue about whether or not their racial issues are still a daily concern. And I’ll think about my own straight flush of privilege, which isn’t a hard thing to be reminded of when you are but one of a number of first-world-folk relaxing in front of some tennis.


And so there I was, on Saturday-night-cum-Sunday-morning, lying on my absolute beauty of a couch in my middle-class Canberran suburb, watching the French Open Final between Ash and Marketa Vondrousova.


Ash dominated the first in such a way that there wasn’t time for anyone to think. But during the second, I found my mind drifting as it always does while she’s on court.


I thought about how different life is now to how it was in 2010. I thought of how the 13 year-old cat on my lap in his traditional happily-dozing-through-late-night-tennis-watching pose feels like about the only thing that hasn’t changed in those 9 years. I thought of how in that time, Mrs EPO and I have moved houses and states and now have two kids – as privileged as their parents, of course – who we’re trying to help navigate through their childhoods. At some stage, I started to wonder where each of the Russians I saw on the news all those years ago might be now while I watched the Final…and my eyes gazed down to the brown paper bag out of which I was nervous-eating chips and I laughed as I realised the branding informed me I was actually eating “Restaurant Style Extreme Cheese Tortilla Triangles”. I thought about how I always think about this stuff, but never really think about this stuff. I thought about how I’ll next think about this stuff when I watch Ash play Wimbledon in a few weeks. I thought about how then, again, I won’t really think about this stuff.


I thought about how a 14 year-old prodigy isn’t a kid anymore, but rather she’s a genuinely inspirational Aboriginal woman seemingly destined to be remembered forever.


A little later, with Advantage and up 5-3 in the second set, Ash forced Vondrousova into a weak defensive lob that only just cleared the net. Ash smashed the ball cross-court, turned to her players box, and raised her arms in triumph. Almost immediately, her hands came down to the top of her head and she said the first three words that came to her mind:


“What the fuck?”


Absolutely, Ash.




Our writers are independent contributors. The opinions expressed in their articles are their own. They are not the views, nor do they reflect the views, of Malarkey Publications.


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About Edward P. Olsen

EPO is equally passionate about sport and sports writing. While others toil away at the local indoor sports centre re-living their futile childhood dreams of being one of the best of all time, he types away at home re-living his futile childhood dream of being one of the world’s great columnists.


  1. I really enjoyed this ‘thinking out loud’ piece. Thanks EPO. I find being on my own in a place – at sports events, travelling etc – lends itself to contemplation.

  2. Andrew Starkie says

    Love AB, EPO. May the Barty Party go on forever.

  3. “Sometimes the light’s all shinin’ on me,
    Other times I can barely see.
    Lately it occurs to me what a long, strange trip it’s been.”
    (Truckin’ – the Grateful Dead)
    Amen brother Olsen.

  4. Rod Oaten says

    Fantastic EPO and fantastic to Ash Barty.

    How great it is to have a genuine tennis champion and a proud first nation person as well.

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