Ashleigh Barty has been named the WTA Player of the Year after a stellar season, which included five WTA titles and a second Grand Slam triumph.
Despite choosing to miss the majority of the Covid-19 affected tennis season because of concerns related to the pandemic, Barty returned to the game in January 2021 after an 11-month hiatus.
The 25-year-old remained the world number one, even while absent from the tour, by virtue of the protected rankings system at the time.
But, while some questioned the legitimacy of her ranking, the Australian proved in 2021 that she is, without doubt, the best female tennis player on the planet right now.
Here’s a look back at the Aussie star’s memorable year:
Return to tennis
Having not played competitive tennis for almost a year, some questioned whether Barty had enough match practice under her belt to challenge for titles immediately on her return.
However, the Australian duly proved all her doubters wrong. She won her first tournament back at the Yarra Valley Classic in the build-up to the Australian Open –– defeating world number three Garbiñe Muguruza in straight sets in the final.
The 25-year-old then entered the Australian Open as the top seed but was knocked out by Karolína Muchová in the quarter-finals.
Miami Open Victory
One of Barty’s most significant wins this year came at the Miami Open, where she defended her title from 2019.
Despite being the top seed for the event, all eyes were on Naomi Osaka, who had the chance to leapfrog Barty in the rankings should she reach the final and better the Australian’s performance.
Osaka was knocked out by Maria Sakkari in the quarter-finals, but Barty went on to win the tournament, despite being forced to save a match point in her opening fixture.
This solidified the Australian’s position at the top of the rankings and the two-time major winner never looked back after that.
Clay court season
Barty started the clay-court season by winning her third title of the year at the Stuttgart Open. She also reached the final of the Madrid Open –– once again confirming her quality on surfaces.
Having won the 2019 French Open, many considered the Australian the favourite in the build-up to Roland-Garros, but she was forced to withdraw from the Grand Slam due to injury.
These injuries caused Barty to be absent from the tour until Wimbledon, where her level of fitness was still somewhat unclear.
Remarkably, the world number one stormed to victory at the All England Club, beating French Open champion Barbora Krejčíková and former Wimbledon winner Angelique Kerber along the way.
This made Barty the first Australian woman to win the title since 1980 and the first top seed to triumph since Serena Williams in 2016.
Return to Australia
As the tour transitioned into the hard court season, Barty won her fifth title at the Cincinnati Open without dropping a set.
Yet, after suffering a shock third-round defeat to Shelby Rogers in the third round of the US Open, she chose to travel back to Australia and unexpectedly ended her season early.
This meant she missed the esteemed Indian Wells Open and the WTA Finals, where she would’ve been the number one seed.
Even with missing these big events, the 25-year-old ended the year with the most ranking points of any player on tour.
Having now held the number one spot for three successive years, her position at the top of the rankings has never been stronger.
And, now that she is rested and recuperated, the Aussie is the heavy favourite for next year’s Australian Open as she seeks to win a first major on home soil.