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Ash Barty answers the question on every tennis fan’s lips by showing she’s still capable of doing well on Centre Court at Wimbledon

By Ian Chadband for the Australian Associated Press

23:29 10 Jul 2024, updated 23:29 10 Jul 2024

  • Australian athlete leaves his mark on sport by retiring in 2022
  • He proved on Wednesday that he has lost none of his talent
  • Three years have passed since the championship was won

Three years since she became Wimbledon women’s singles champion, Ash Barty made a stunning return to Centre Court and savoured every minute of her anniversary comeback.

In a cruel irony, the withdrawal of compatriot Alex de Minaur from his quarter-final match against Novak Djokovic due to a hip injury has left Barty, Australia’s 2021 champion, stepping in to fill the void on the main stage on Wednesday and bringing her star quality to the table.

Playing alongside best friend Casey Dallacqua in the Legends’ invitational doubles match, Barty couldn’t have looked happier, stringing together easy volleys and blowing forehands, while also providing a few tantalising glimpses of the quality we’ve all been missing in her absence.

The Aussie pals beat Andrea Petkovic and Magdalena Rybarikova 5-7 6-3 (10-7) but no one really cared about the score.

Because it was really heartening to see the 28-year-old, now mother of a one-year-old son, having a bit of fun with her old friend, apologising profusely for yet another dirty mistake and occasionally looking a bit pleased with herself for a winner who brought back some great memories.

“It felt incredible. Obviously, this is the place that holds some of my most precious memories and it’s really nice to be back on the court with my best friend. It’s pretty special,” the 28-year-old said.

Asked about finding out late that she had moved to Centre Court, she said: ‘Yes, it was a big surprise. It was a very nice surprise. I was making lunch for my son at home when I got an email saying we had moved to Centre.

“I immediately called Casey and said, ‘This is a little different than what we signed up for!’ But we were excited.”

The Australian legend was all smiles as he triumphantly returned to the stage where one of the biggest victories of his career took place
Barty teamed up with her friend and fellow Australian Casey Dallacqua to beat Andrea Petkovic and Magdalena Rybarikova

‘This is a beautiful court. I think it’s the best court in the world. I’m so grateful and so lucky that we were able to share an experience there again today.’

But it was touching to watch the great player playing at half-tempo in a two-thirds empty arena on the third anniversary of her victory over Karolina Pliskova; on that day she had given a tennis masterclass for the whole world to enjoy.

One volley in particular from Barty – a superb, sharply angled backhand that sailed across the court, across the net and drew the biggest cheers from the sparse crowd – was the brightest reminder of the rare talent that made her the world No 1 before her shock retirement two years ago.

Even though he made it clear that he would not be making a competitive comeback, his winning mentality was still there and he took his game to the next level in the champions’ tie-break, ensuring that his return was a winning one.

But when a reporter later asked her when she would make a real return to tennis, she immediately hit the ball with a fluid backhand.

“You’re killing me. I don’t know how much more. Does anyone have a thesaurus for a word I can use for ‘no’?” she sighed.

‘No, man. No, I’m not.’

Barty showed off her unique sense of humour when asked the obvious question about returning to the tour
One shot in particular – a beautifully angled backhand volley – reminded fans that the 28-year-old could still be a step ahead if he returns to tournament play

Following the win, Barty was asked about Alex de Minaur’s withdrawal from his quarter-final match against Novak Djokovic due to injury.

“I feel sorry for Alex,” he said.

“I mean, you could see how much this meant to him. Like he said, this was the biggest game of his life. This was the opportunity he worked so hard for. For something so awful to happen.

“But he’s a tough athlete. He’s a very strong guy. I know it’s going to be a challenge but definitely a silver lining that he’s going to improve along the way.

“He’s too smart, too ambitious, too passionate and too motivated to learn from this and not learn from this.

“But it hurts. You definitely can’t hide behind the fact that it’s horrible. You have to be able to accept that.

“It’s OK to let it plateau for a while but I’m sure he can come back. Once he’s back on the field, fit and healthy, he’ll be back doing what he does best.”