Ash Barty's return to tennis brings her to French Open final

PARIS -- Ash Barty was only 15 when she won the junior title at Wimbledon, a prodigy with a slice-and-dice game style tailor-made for grass. Three years later, burned out and struggling with depression, she quit tennis and took up professional cricket instead. Had she not taken an 18-month break, Barty says, she would have given up tennis entirely. And yet, another three years after returning to the game, she is on the verge of a Grand Slam title.

The 23-year-old Australian rallied from a set down to beat 17-year-old American Amanda Anisimova, 6-7(4), 6-3, 6-3, to advance to her first Grand Slam final at the 2019 French Open on Friday. She will face Marketa Vondrousova, who beat Brit Johanna Konta 7-5, 7-6(2), in Saturday's finale. At No. 8, Barty was the highest seed of the four remaining women in the draw -- all appearing in the last four at Roland Garros for the first time -- and she is the favorite at Caesars Sportsbook (-160) to take home the title.

"It was always the goal to come back and try and put myself in a position where I'm playing against the world's best and competing against the world's best," said Barty, who beat American Madison Keys 6-3, 7-5 in the quarterfinals en route to the final. "But when I had my time off, I think it was just a gradual progression of missing the competition, missing what I loved. I love this sport, and I'm very lucky to be in the position I am now. With an amazing team around me, we're enjoying it, having a lot of fun, having some amazing results."

It was her first coach, Jim Joyce, who encouraged her to learn every shot, from the kick serve (which she mastered early), to the slice, the drop shot, the lob -- you name it. Putting it all together, and using them at the right times, was not easy, but in the past year in particular, it has really clicked. She broke into the top 10 after winning the biggest title of her career in Miami in March, and she has dropped just two sets on her way to the French Open final.

"I have always enjoyed that part of it," Barty said. "I think probably the toughest thing for me has been making sure I make the right decisions. I feel like I'm getting better at that every single day. It is a puzzle out there. It's a little bit of a chess game in a way. The one-on-one competition, I love. All I'm trying to do is everything in my power to beat the girl down at the other end of the court. That's certainly what I love about it."

At 5-foot-5, Barty is one of the smaller women on tour, but she makes up for her lack of height with her athleticism and intelligence on the court. She likes to be different, and that difference makes her a tough opponent. What has been a surprise is her run on clay, having won just two matches in five previous visits to Roland Garros. She made the quarterfinals in Madrid last month but won just one match in Rome and then pulled out of Strasbourg with a right-arm injury she has struggled with for much of her career.

"I think we have approached this clay-court season to really enjoy it," Barty said Thursday. "I don't have to change the way that I play too much. It's about going out there, getting exposure to it, trying to get as many matches as possible. I feel like I'm learning every single match. Obviously I'm doing some things very well. There are still some things I'd love to do better, regardless of what surface I'm playing on. But it's been an incredible few months to start off the year and definitely just riding that wave at the moment."

During her run to the Australian Open quarterfinals earlier this year, Barty was under the spotlight throughout, no surprise since Australia has not had a home champion since Chris O'Neil won the women's title in 1978. In Paris, she has been able to walk around virtually unnoticed, and the anonymity has sat well on her shoulders.

Now, though, things have changed.

"It's a new situation for me, a little bit of a new territory," Barty said. "Not quite sure what to expect. ... But I will prepare and do the best that I can to keep it normal. Obviously it's a little bit of a different buzz and a little bit of a different electricity. But ultimately, I'll try and prepare and do everything exactly the same and try and play my best tennis."

And having done just that against Anisimova on Friday, Barty now has a great chance to become the first Australian to win Roland Garros since Margaret Court in 1973.