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‘She’s a freak’: Ash Barty and the rise of the multi-sport athlete

Jan 26, 2022

Advertisement When Ash Barty took a break from tennis in 2014 to try her hand at competitive cricket, Andy Richards, then coach of the Queensland Fire, kitted her out with a borrowed bat, gloves, pads and helmet and ushered her towards the pointy end of a bowling machine. In theory, this all should have been unfamiliar to the then 18-year-old, who grew up as a tennis prodigy but had never played cricket outside of the family backyard. The sport wasn’t totally foreign, though; Barty’s father Rob was a handy practitioner and his daughter had always loved the game. Still, there is a vast gulf between “watching” and “doing,” so Richards could be forgiven for not expecting miracles when he sent the first few projectiles towards Barty, who was accustomed to tennis balls kicking up viciously from the court but not the zing of a rising or seaming Kookaburra. Richards was floored by what he witnessed. Intuitively, Barty began to move her feet and body into ideal positions to stoutly defend balls careening towards the stumps. Coming from a sport that insists on a horizontal racquet, Barty made a lightning adjustment to one that often demands a vertical blade. Many of the nuances of good batting, some that can take years to nurture or coach, were inbuilt. When Richards asked Barty to hit harder and straighter, she began to strike them as cleanly as if she were dispensing a tantalising tennis ball hovering midcourt, begging to be belted away for a winner. “It’s a bat and ball sport. Her benefit coming across to tennis was the thousands of balls that she has hit. Her hand-eye was most extraordinary,” Richards recalls. “The first 150 balls I fed her on a bowling machine, she was using borrowed everything, she missed two balls. Ash Barty spent some time with the Brisbane Heat in the WBBL. Credit:Getty Images “She didn’t get out. She was caught a few times ... that was OK because we wanted her to hit the ball. From a coaching perspective, it was incredible because she was so aware of what needed to be done. She’s a very visual learner and explaining concepts was so easy. “She’s a freak, for a start. That’s probably a given. She is the best I have seen in 20 years of coaching of a cross-sport athlete.” Advertisement Barty’s cross-code prowess was on show for the world to see last week when she nonchalantly tucked a tennis ball down to fine leg on Rod Laver Arena. It sent cricket tragics around the world into a minor meltdown, as well as confounded viewers who were left baffled by her compact flick of the wrist to a dead ball. It was also a reminder of the benefits of a multi-sport background for elite and aspiring athletes, with Barty another example of a champion who either dabbled with a suite of sports as a junior before specialising late, or spent time on another pursuit only to return to her calling energised and motivated. Most mortals can’t simply take up a fresh challenge and succeed at Barty’s pace. By any measure, she is a gifted ball-sports athlete, who would likely thrive in any team or individual environment should she decide it warranted her time and effort. At the same time she took up cricket, Barty began flirting with golf, another family endeavour. As with cricket, it was neglected as a pastime with tennis filling her early years, although she watched with interest whenever it was on television; a “visual learner”. In her first full round on an 18-hole course, Barty carded a 79, the kind of score that some dedicated weekenders might spend 40 years trying to achieve. In late 2020, with Barty’s tour movements curtailed by COVID-19, she treated herself to the women’s championship at the testing Brookwater layout near her home in Springfield, west of Brisbane. The men’s champion that day was Louis Dobbelaar, an amateur star who has now joined the professional ranks. His coach is Grant Field, who also mentors Cameron Smith , the world No.11, with Field having a front-row seat to some of Barty’s rounds. Barty plays a round of golf in Queensland. Credit:Instagram Her ability to hit a ball cleanly is a takeout from her tennis and cricket, Field said, but Barty also brings a soft feel around the greens, an area that can demolish the scorecards of more seasoned players and hackers alike. “She is hugely talented, great hand-eye, moves well. With a more golf-specific focus, she would pick it up very quickly,” Field said. “She has amazing touch, her short game is fantastic. Even though, technically, she could be a little bit better, she was wonderful around the greens. If she wanted to focus on that, her game could take off. “She just loves sport, you can just tell. She is extremely gifted and couple that with the hard work that she puts in, she could transfer to a number of sports and probably be really good.” Would Field coach Barty if she decided golf was in her future once her tennis career concludes? “Absolutely. It’s something you always look at if you are a coach. If she ever decided she wanted to play more golf, I’d be more than happy to help her out.” The debate about early specialisation in sport has been a hearty one during the past decade, with more and more evidence suggesting variety at an early age, rather than obsessing over a single sport, has benefits well beyond the field of play. Roger Federer and Emma Raducanu are among the current grand slam winners who arrived at tennis later than many of their peers, with the latter trying everything from ballet to go-karting before narrowing her focus. Barty. Both Richards and Field said they actively encouraged any young athlete to try their hand at anything and everything. That doesn’t even have to be in a structured environment, Field said, given how much someone like Barty took from simply experimenting with cricket in a play-based setting before trying it for real. Loading “Just being around it, seeing it, hearing conversations, it all adds up. You just had to see her the other day just deflecting one off the hips on centre court,” Field said. “We say it all the time: What makes you good at 12 isn’t always what makes you good at 16 or 17. It’s not always a prerequisite for being good or great. Even if it isn’t structured sport, being out in the yard with a bat or a golf club or racquet, it makes a big difference.” Researchers at the Australian Institute of Sport suggest the obsession with specialisation is usually driven by parents and coaches, who fear their budding stars may lose touch with their peers if they step away for even a few weeks, or injure themselves chasing a football instead of a tennis ball. Loading Author David Epstein largely debunked those fears in his 2019 book Range: How Generalists Triumph in a Specialised World, a book partly interpreted as an antithesis to Malcolm Gladwell’s Outliers published a decade earlier, which laid out the 10,000 rule, which he suggested was the key to success in any field. Perhaps Barty’s ongoing success can be another reminder that obsession does not always equate to elitism when it comes to sport. Who knew a simple flick off the hip could speak to so much. Save

Andy Richards Investments

2 Investments

Andy Richards has made 2 investments. Their latest investment was in PharmEnable as part of their Seed VC on June 6, 2020.

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Andy Richards Investments Activity

investments chart

Date

Round

Company

Amount

New?

Co-Investors

Sources

6/30/2020

Seed VC

PharmEnable

$2.23M

Yes

2

6/3/2019

Seed VC - II

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$99M

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10

Date

6/30/2020

6/3/2019

Round

Seed VC

Seed VC - II

Company

PharmEnable

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Amount

$2.23M

$99M

New?

Yes

Subscribe to see more

Co-Investors

Sources

2

10

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