Ashleigh Barty won her maiden Grand Slam singles title at the French Open in 2019
Until this week in Melbourne, world number one Ashleigh Barty had not played a competitive match since 28 February last year.
A three-set defeat by Petra Kvitova in the semi-finals in Doha may have stung at the time, but high-profile events in Indian Wells and Miami were just around the corner.
Or so she thought.
All professional tennis was suspended on 11 March because of the coronavirus pandemic. And although the tours resumed in August, Barty decided not to travel to Paris to defend her French Open title the following month.
“The decision was probably the toughest of the whole year – not being able to try and defend my first Grand Slam title,” the 24-year-old says in an interview with BBC Sport in the run-up to next week’s Australian Open.
“In all honesty, I didn’t watch any. I didn’t sit there thinking, ‘I wish that was me’, because I was completely content with what I had at home – knowing I made all the right decisions for the right reasons.
“Not one bit of me had any bit of regret or a fear of missing out. I slept pretty well at night knowing that.”
Barty barely picked up a racquet between March and May. It was a chance, she says, to “absorb what was going on, and try and figure it out”.
But she did frequently pick up her golf clubs, and has shaved a few shots off a handicap which now stands at three.
It was a rare chance to spend a (warm) winter at home in Brisbane, which had relatively low numbers of Covid cases and less severe lockdowns.
Throughout the year, Barty remained the world’s number one player – helped by a decision to calculate the rankings over a two-year, rather than a single-year, period.
She missed the US Open as well as the French Open, but says there was little in the way of frustration.
“It was more about accepting what was happening in the world and knowing that a lot of it was out of my control,” she continues.
“Obviously, we made some decisions about how much we would play throughout the year, but for me it was a no-brainer: prioritising our health first, and knowing that tennis is not the be all and end all for me.”
Barty did not see her coach Craig Tyzzer for six months because of the closure of state borders. But after finally being allowed to make the trip to Queensland, and then spending two weeks in quarantine, Tyzzer was on hand for the start of serious pre-season training in October.
The main goal was the Australian Open, which will finally begin on Monday – three weeks later than scheduled. Last year Barty fell just short, losing to eventual champion Sofia Kenin in the semi-finals of her home Grand Slam.
She does not know quite what to expect after so long away from competition. Does she still feel like the best player in the world?
“I feel like I’m getting the best out of myself, and that’s all that matters,” is her reply.
“I feel like we’ve earned the position at the top of the rankings, and I know that I do a hell of a lot of work off the court to try and be the best I can be, and that’s all I can do.”
There will inevitably still be high expectations, as it is 43 years since a home player – in the shape of Christine O’Neil – won the women’s title at the Australian Open.
Up to 30,000 fans a day are expected to watch over the next fortnight, and Barty is sensitive to those Melburnians who do not believe the Australian Open is appropriate this year.
Melbourne was in lockdown for more than 100 days between July and October as the state of Victoria suffered more than 90% of the deaths in Australia’s second Covid wave.
“I can completely understand how Victorians feel,” she says.
“I feel like I have a lot of friends and family down here. I lived down here for about 18 months. To know that they are feeling safe is the most important thing, but I know as players we should be extremely grateful that we have the opportunity now to start our season in Australia.”
The tours are hoping to be able to run a relatively normal schedule from April, with the French Open due to begin in late May. Iga Swiatek will be defending her title, and so too, in a sense, will Barty.
Assuming she plays.
“It’s a challenging one to say right now,” she says.
“Things change so quickly all over the world, it seems. Our priorities haven’t changed. It will be the health of my team and my family and me as well. I think we will plan as best as we can to travel and to play, but ultimately those decisions will be made closer to the time.”