Ash Barty has made a lifelong impression without pretence, agendas or grandstanding | Mel Jones

, Ash Barty has made a lifelong impression without pretence, agendas or grandstanding | Mel Jones, The Nzuchi Times Guardian

I first met Ash Barty in the middle of the Gabba. It was 2015 – the year she took a break from tennis to play for the Brisbane Heat in the WBBL – and she was inspecting the pitch as if she’d played the game of cricket for years. My initial thought was, “Why would anyone leave behind a professional tennis career of note to try and make it through Brisbane grade cricket into a low paying domestic competition in a completely different sport?”

We chatted, not for long, but long enough for it to have left an impression on me. As I walked back to the commentary box, I was struck by the refreshingly simple yet driven nature of one of Australia’s most talented athletes.

Each time our paths have crossed since, the interactions have been similar: no pretence, agendas, watch-gazing or grandstanding. I’m all for individuality and big characters in sport, but there is part of me that thinks a little bit of Barty in us all couldn’t be a bad thing.

Fast forward to June this year. I had 60 minutes to pack for three months of work in the UK to beat another Melbourne lockdown and catch my flight to London. In the suitcase went my Always Was Always Will Be T-shirt. I love it because it starts a conversation, gets a smile and a nod. It’s my comfort top when I’m missing home or want to show my identity – not as an Indigenous person, but as a person with a heritage that can relate in some ways to lived experiences.

During an interview before the start of the championships in London, Barty put it out there: her childhood dream was to win Wimbledon. Given it is the anniversary year of Evonne Goolagong Cawley’s first title, Barty would honour her mentor with her dress design, and with finals week coinciding with Naidoc week, things were building towards something special.

While the hype was building around Barty, elsewhere in the UK there was a swirling mix of stories that had many frustrated, saddened and angry at where sport had found itself. The constant barrage of racist and sexist posts on social media, the booing of opposition nations during national anthems at the Euros, the cynicism and lack of understanding around mental health for athletes.

Amid the negativity, Barty’s message of positivity stood out even more. I was on a mission to support her and everything she embodies.

Yet I had a pang of nervousness about wearing the T-shirt to Centre Court at Wimbledon on women’s final day, and the response it might evoke. Thoughts momentarily turned back to the recent Australian summer and my role as spokesperson for Cricket Australia on a number of recommendations made to celebrate and acknowledge Aboriginal and Torres Strait Island involvement in the game on our national holiday. I was both proud of the stance taken and sickened by some of the responses. We received support from other national sporting bodies, Reconciliation Australia, community leaders and many in the public, but we also had to deal with the backlash to change.

But visibility matters and the T-shirt was going to SW19. What I didn’t realise was just how visible it would be – it turns out my seat was in the direct line of the service camera. My phone started to go off as family and friends sent screen grabs of me and fellow cricket commentator Isa Guha sitting together, asking how on earth we managed to wrangle our way into the final.

, Ash Barty has made a lifelong impression without pretence, agendas or grandstanding | Mel Jones, The Nzuchi Times Guardian

The match itself was a rollercoaster right up to the moment Barty was crowned the new Wimbledon champion. I was immediately filled with a flood of emotions, followed by air punching and a complete inability to form a coherent sentence.

As she started to leave the court, I thought I had better get something on my camera. So, having no idea she had any concept of me being there, I filmed my own fan girl moment. With the winner’s plate in hand, she walked off the court, looked up and pointed straight at me.

What did the point represent? For Ash, you’d have to ask her. For me, it meant absolutely everything. And I will forever both cringe and laugh at my response: “You bloody beauty, you!”

I didn’t check my messages for quite a long time after that as I didn’t want to distract from the sheer elation I was feeling in the moment. When I did eventually pick up my phone again, I reluctantly braced for the kind of social media filth I’d previously been subjected to after a display of allyship.

Instead, I read through a stream of heartfelt messages that encapsulated what Ash’s win meant to so many Australians, both Indigenous and non-Indigenous. They were connected. They were hopeful. They felt like they were there with and for her.

I’ve been fortunate in my life to have experienced a number of significant “I was there” sporting moments. Most of them are cricket-related. Most of them team sports and most of them purely about the competition at hand.

On Saturday, I experienced something that I am still fully trying to grasp but know I will revel in for the rest of my days. Thank you, Ash. Thank you for giving us all not just a moment in sport, but showing us the importance of connection, the way to respect the game and opposition … and for being you.

From the centre of the Gabba to Wimbledon’s centre court, you have made a lifelong impression on me.

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