It’s easy to list Ash Barty’s standout achievements in 2019. She broke through to win the French Open, the 23-year-old taking home her first grand slam trophy. She became the world’s No. 1 ranked female tennis player. And she capped it off by winning the $6.4 million WTA Finals title in China’s Shenzhen: the richest prize in tennis history.
All that aside, consider her versatility – Barty won tournaments on all four surfaces (grass, clay, hard court and carpet) – and her consistency, reaching the final 16 of every grand slam but also holding her No. 1 ranking through to the end of the year. And she did it all with an appealing and marketable mix of class and grit, good humour and grace, earning worthy comparisons with star forebears Margaret Court and Evonne Goolagong Cawley.
“Stylistically, she is old-school,” says The Sydney Morning Herald sports editor Chris Barrett. “She wasn’t built in the factory of baseline sluggers who populate tennis. She relies on variation and intelligence – the spin on her serve, the slice backhand – and trying to out-think her opponents instead of relying on power.”
Barty is also devoted to the Fed Cup, and while the Australian team fell short of victory in Perth this month, Barty is clearly pushing and prioritising the squad (and indeed, doubles tennis), stamping herself not just as a generational talent but the ultimate team player, too.
She is, unsurprisingly, a national favourite. Loyal to her first big-brand sponsor, Vegemite (which has released a run of “Bartymite” jars), Barty is seemingly unaffected by her newfound wealth and stature. “She’s not defined by her ranking, or the digits in her bank balance, and Australians love that,” says Barrett. “She seems to be in the same air that Pat Rafter occupied 20 years ago.”
The future is bright, too. Serena Williams will retire one day, while Maria Sharapova is past her best. Women’s tennis is in a state of flux, with no obvious heir. “We’re in an interesting period where you’ve got this new gang: Ash Barty, Naomi Osaka, Bianca Andreescu,” says Barrett. “She has an opportunity to be the dominant player of a new generation.”
Cast your mind back to the opening games of cricket’s World Cup in early June. Australian batsman Steve Smith, hoping for forgiveness or absolution, was vehemently booed, to the point that Virat Kohli, the Indian captain, pleaded with the braying mob to ease up. “Yet the booing abated – slowly,” says The Age chief sports columnist Greg Baum, “and by the time Smith got to the last innings of the summer, in the fifth Ashes Test at the Oval against England in mid-September, he walked off the ground to sustained applause.”
Such recognition was not built on the back of the tired 23 runs Smith scored that day, but on the 774 runs he amassed over four Tests to help Australia retain the Ashes, at a staggering average of 110.57 – a virtuosic performance made more notable by the precarious pitches on which the series was played. “The conditions were tremendously favourable to the bowlers – all the way through,” Baum says. “In cricket you can never say that anything was won single-handedly, but it got damn close to that idea.”
At the time of writing, heading into a day-night test against Pakistan in Adelaide, Smith was just 20 runs shy of passing the 6996 Test runs scored by Don Bradman, yet many think once disgraced, forever disgraced, and that Smith should not be celebrated regardless of how many runs he scores, after his involvement in the “Sandpapergate” ball-tampering scandal.
While that’s a legitimate stance, he’s a player aiming for redemption not through words but through action, with even his critics admiring the mental discipline he has deployed to that task. “We’re talking about sport here, not someone responsible for a massacre, or crimes against children,” Baum says. “The currency for him as a batsman is runs. If he scores enough, and it leads to a great outcome, that will help redeem him in the eyes of the cricket-going public.”
Former cricket captains Allan Border and Steve Waugh have fairly questioned whether Smith should ever have his captaincy reinstated, but that wasn’t the issue this year, with Tim Paine settled well into the role, personifying the team’s new, less arrogant image. “But Paine will also be 35 next month, and isn’t going to play forever,” says Baum.
The plight of Hakeem al-Araibi, the soccer player of Bahraini descent unjustly arrested late last year in Thailand, came to the attention of The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age south-east Asia correspondent James Massola in November 2018. “There were a few small stories about him,” says Massola, “but no one was paying attention. It was approaching Christmas, and there was a concern that Hakeem would simply be forgotten. Things just went … quiet.”
The Australian refugee faced extradition to Bahrain, where he would almost certainly be put back into prison – or worse – for an attack on a police station he did not commit. “What happened next wouldn’t – couldn’t – have happened without Craig Foster,” says Massola. “No way.”
The retired Socceroos captain and SBS chief football analyst met al-Araibi in his Bangkok jail, heard his story and dove immediately into what became a global campaign to get him home. “Foster flew to Zurich to lobby at FIFA headquarters. Then he went to Holland to see FIFPro, the international players’ union, to enlist its help. He began knitting together a collective of human rights activists but he also brought pressure to bear on the global football community.”
Foster tapped into his media network, too,
appearing on TV, spurring print reporting and mobilising social media with the trending hashtag #SaveHakeem. Even that simplifies his contribution. Foster liaised with Foreign Affairs Minister Marise Payne and the Australian ambassador to Thailand, Allan McKinnon, while talking with the Gulf Centre for Human Rights, Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch in Bangkok, as well as Football Federation Australia. “He was talking to everyone.
He was the glue,” says Massola.
Foster helped in another way, too – in February, when al-Araibi arrived for a court hearing wearing shackles. “All the media was there waiting and Craig yelled out to him, ‘Australia’s with you! We’re all with you!’ ” recalls Massola. “It was crucial moral support, and it was beamed around the world.” A week later, al-Araibi was freed and put on a plane home to his waiting wife in Melbourne.
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Konrad Marshall is a senior writer