Women’s world number one Ashleigh Barty has revealed that questions over the legitimacy of her ranking motivated her to maintain her place at the top this year.
Barty has held the number one spot since September 2019 despite missing almost all of the 2020 season because of concerns related to travelling during the Covid-19 pandemic.
During this period, the WTA introduced a protected ranking system, meaning Barty’s position at the top was secure, but some suggested that was unfair to some of those vying for the number one position.
Japanese star, Naomi Osaka, won back-to-back Grand Slams at the 2020 US Open and 2021 Australian Open, yet remained behind Barty in the rankings because of the Australian’s protected points.
However, since returning to the tour full-time, Barty has been the most consistent player in the world by a distance and strengthened her lead at the summit.
Speaking to Code Sports, the 25-year-old opened up on how she dealt with the challenges of this year and why the Osaka comparisons spurred her on.
“Holding the No 1 ranking again to finish 2021 is something I am incredibly proud of after such a challenging and unusual season,” she said.
“To have spent so much time on the road, to have asked the people I love and admire to support me and make sacrifices, and for us to prevail is an achievement to celebrate.
“When I look back at the season, there were four phases critical to holding on to the top ranking.
“When we arrived in Miami in late March, I felt people were questioning whether I was the rightful No 1 given Naomi Osaka had won a couple of Grand Slams in succession.
“It was probably the first time I felt a little rattled and I really wanted to make a statement on the court.
“Getting through that tournament – and playing so well at the end of it to defend my crown from 2019 – felt like a pivotal moment, particularly after overcoming a match point in my first-round match against qualifier Kristina Kucova.
“It was then that I realised I truly wanted to be the No 1. It was not about the accolades. It was the realisation of my determination, the competitive drive that was burning. I thought, ‘You know what? Someone is going to have to be really, really good to take this off me.”
Following Miami, Barty never looked like giving up the top spot. The Aussie claimed her second major title at Wimbledon and could well have challenged for another, had she not been forced to withdraw from the French Open through injury.
Now, having opted not to defend her title at the WTA Finals, Barty is already preparing for the 2022 season.
The Australian Open starts in January and Barty is bidding to be the first player from the country to win the tournament since 1978.
In 2020, she came close to doing so after making the semi-finals but lost to eventual champion, Sofia Kenin.
Two years on, however, and the two-time major winner has a better chance than ever.
“I know that I will be feeling on top of the world at the end of it and raring to go for the Australian summer. Bring it on.”