It was the summer of Omicron and, after two years of on-and-off lockdowns, no one was happy about it. To cap it off, blackfellas across the country were recovering from another Invasion Day, with protests held around the country against blak deaths in custody.
However, in the evening, we had a source of excitement. Ash Barty was dominating in the Australian Open and captivating the nation. It had been over forty years since someone from our country had won the Open, but it seemed like that was about to change.
I must admit, I was not a huge tennis enthusiast at the time. I was simply a fan of Barty. I joined in on the “Barty party” and became a fan relatively late, after her amazing victory at the 2021 Wimbledon tournament. It was exactly 50 years after her mentor, Evonne Goolagong Cawley, a Wiradjuri woman and tennis legend, achieved the same feat.
And sure, part of the allure of the Barty party was the joy that came with rallying around an athlete at the prime of their career, winning title after title. Another drawcard was Barty’s delightful presence post match – calm, incredibly modest and quick to flash a cheeky grin.
However, for me, Barty’s influence extended beyond just her athletic abilities. Growing up, I had numerous black athletes to admire, and I was proud to claim a distant family tie to the renowned NRL player David Peachey. Yet, aside from my main role model Cathy Freeman, the media and society as a whole did not celebrate black female athletes in the same manner.
During that summer, there was a noticeable change. Barty held the title of world number one and was competing in her home country. She had gained widespread recognition and her pride in her Ngarigo ancestry was well-known. There were numerous rumors of her being related to others, spreading rapidly.
On the evening of the championship, Barty faced off against American player Danielle Collins. It not only turned out to be an exceptional game (with astonishing TV viewership, making it one of the top athletic moments of the past 20 years) but also a significant moment for black women in sports.
Following Barty’s straight sets victory over Collins, she received an unexpected surprise.
Goolagong Cawley had been unwell and before the tournament she told Barty she was unable to attend. But after a last minute change of heart, a cloak-and-dagger plan was hatched to get her to Melbourne and into the arena without anyone knowing the wiser.
“I am pleased to announce that we have a special guest who will present the trophy to the finalists,” declared the announcer, as Goolagong Cawley made her appearance on the court, causing an uproar from the crowd. Barty’s face lit up with a million-watt smile as she bent over in shock.
Not only did a magical aunt make an appearance, but the broadcast also showed Cathy Freeman in the audience, proudly taking photos on her phone. She wasn’t just a bystander, but a reliable source of support for Barty.
Barty recalled how amazing Cathy is. He mentioned a time a few years back when he was in tears after losing a semi-final match and called Cathy to talk about her own experiences.
This moment was overwhelming for me and many others. Seeing these three cherished faces together, three black women celebrating each other, brought a rush of happiness. I was at a loss for words while watching from home, so I tweeted their names with numerous exclamation marks. It has become one of my most popular tweets.
Emma Kemp, a reporter for Guardian Australia, stated that there are moments where one must pause and acknowledge that they are currently experiencing a significant event in history.
She expressed that she took the time to pause and fully appreciate the moment because she believes it will be remembered as a significant sporting event, similar to Cathy Freeman’s performance at the 2000 Olympics. This was said during an interview on the Full Story podcast.
Barty later humbly discussed her role in this significant moment and its lasting impact.
She admitted, “I am not on their level.” Cathy and Evonne are both remarkable individuals and athletes who have inspired many of us. I am still striving to emulate their success and be the best version of myself.
Only a short time after the 2022 Australian Open, the Barty celebration abruptly ended when she announced her retirement from tennis at the young age of 25. Barty was exhausted and ready to move on from the sport.
“I have dedicated my all to this wonderful game of tennis,” she stated.
During a period where sports stars like Naomi Osaka and Simone Biles were choosing to step back from competing due to the taxing toll it takes on their bodies and minds, Barty’s choice was worthy of praise.
I am grateful that she provided us with whatever she could. I appreciate that she gave us that memorable evening, filled with unexpected moments, festivities, and black happiness.