The impact of Ash Barty’s visit to remote Indigenous communities in the Northern Territory earlier this year is still being felt.
Tennis great Ash Barty sent shockwaves through the sport when she announced her retirement earlier this year.
However, for some people, her on-court achievements were just one component of more important work behind done the scenes.
Barty’s visit to the Northern Territory as part of the Racquets and Red Dust program in February was one such example. That trip saw the former world No. 1 meet and work with remote Indigenous communities, most notably the Muṯitjulu people, as well as people from Pitjantjatjara Yankunytjatjara country.
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Photos of the star (herself a Ngaragu woman) playing tennis with local children at the base of Uluru were splashed on newspapers around the country, but the long-term impact of the visit has proved the “Barty effect” isn’t reliant on her winning tennis tournaments.
“There’s been quite an uptake in club tennis since her visit,” Tennis NT’s inclusion and diversity manager, Beth Caird, told news.com.au.
“People were really inspired by a world No. 1 coming to the NT right off an Australian Open win.
“It was the perfect storm — she’d had the French, Wimbledon and Australian Open wins … she was seen as an Indigenous leader and there was a strong ethos of ‘if Ash can do it, anyone can’.”
One flow-on effect of Barty’s visit to the Red Centre has been the inclusion of a Mutitjulu team in the upcoming National Indigenous Tennis Carnival, set to be held in August.
The competition is symbolic of a connection that’s been steadily growing between Indigenous Australia and the tennis community.
“Tennis is uniquely good at bringing people together,” Ms Caird said.
“That day when Ash visited we invited the health service who had just done a huge Covid vaccination drive, the local police came, and we had some healers from Pitjantjatjara and Yankunytjatjara land there too.
“You need to have sustained and meaningful connection — we avoid a fly-in, fly-out model — that’s really important to us, so we’re working at maintaining those relationships that were formed.”
Ms Caird added that tennis had been particularly positive for young Indigenous girls, giving them another option of sport to play, as opposed to just AFL or netball.
“Tennis is a great gender equaliser and a really great option for young girls,” Ms Caird said.
“It’s really good to have that alternative for (generally) gendered sports.
“The game is a good social vehicle for social and emotional wellbeing outcomes, as well as community enrichment.”
Despite Barty’s sudden retirement — which came mere weeks after her visit — Ms Caird said the Queenslander’s status as a legend in the eyes of the community was never under threat.
Barty herself indicated to reporters in March that continuing to work alongside Indigenous communities was something she wanted to pursue in the future, following in the footsteps of fellow tennis great Evonne Goolagong.
“I‘m really excited to have the opportunity to give Indigenous youth, Aboriginal youth around our nation, more opportunity to get into the sport,“ Barty said at the time.
“That’s something that we’ll work on down the track but I am excited to spend more time in that space.”