Four years after Ash Barty enjoyed her first grand slam triumph at Roland Garros, local representation is on track to be the lowest ever
Thu 25 May 2023 11.00 EDT
As Ash Barty was basking in the adulation of returning to Brisbane as the world No 1 in January 2020, Kimberly Birrell was buzzing about the media room preparing for the future. Birrell, who is the only Australian guaranteed to play women’s singles at Roland Garros this year, bounced between social media opportunities and player interviews with enthusiasm.
As a Tennis Australia social media assistant the Queenslander presented like a journalism graduate in the midst of a dream summer internship doing her best to impress. With her work ethic and intellect clear, she was offered a similar media role at the Australian Open.
“I met so many cool people and had so many cool experiences and a lot of good opportunities have come from that. But, oh my God, it was daunting,” she says. “I have never been so tired in my life. I have so much respect for you guys with what you go through, because through those three weeks, they were the longest days ever.
“I remember I kept saying, ‘I need to get back on the court,’ because I just felt exhausted at the end of every day.”
To be accurate, almost everyone else working in those media centres wished she was back on the court as well, though this had nothing to do with her working capabilities. Instead of attending promotional shoots where the world’s best players cuddled with koalas, her colleagues know Birrell should have been blasting balls from the baseline with Barty.
A year earlier the Gold Coast native had been on the other side of the microphone, beaming as she discussed a first Top 10 victory over Daria Kasatkina in the Brisbane International. At the Australian Open she added Sofia Kenin, the 2020 titleist, and future Indian Wells champion Paula Badosa to her list of scalps to set up what remains a career highpoint.
Angelique Kerber proved too good for Birrell in their third round match, but she gained the invaluable experience of playing against a three-time major champion on Rod Laver Arena. Barty had matured into a world beater in 2019, but as her compatriot was bounding towards the Top 100, a serious elbow injury derailed Birrell’s rise and nearly her career. Hence the summer of work experience in 2020.
“It was like a catch-22,” Birrell says. “I could be at home, trying not to think about tennis, and that’s hard to avoid, because I love watching tennis. So I felt like I only really had one option to get back there and actually be a part of it.”
Four years after Barty enjoyed her first grand slam triumph, this French Open shapes as the most desolate for Australian women in the Open era, depending on the next few days.
Top-ranked Australian Ajla Tomljanovic, who has not played since the Billie Jean King Cup final in Scotland last November due to a knee injury, has pulled out. Storm Hunter and Jaimee Fourlis are through to the final round in qualifying and it is hoped the numbers will swell from the current allotment of Birrell, the recipient of a wildcard.
But the presence of the world No 111 is a reason to cheer given the resilience she has shown in returning from two elbow surgeries that forced her off the tour for the best part of 30 months. For a long time, the Queenslander was unable to straighten her right arm, critical in serving, due to pain associated with bone spurs on the joint.
The road back for Birrell, speaking after reaching the second round at a WTA tournament in Strasbourg this week, has been filled with potholes.
Returning with a ranking of 740 last summer, she performed well in qualifying for two events in Melbourne including the Australian Open without reaching the main draw. She contracted Covid-19 on leaving Australia last April to begin rebuilding her ranking, which left her stranded in strict hotel quarantine in Thailand for a fortnight.
A year ago the right-hander was ranked 506 and had just been beaten by France’s Alice Robbe, positioned 123 spots higher, at a tournament in Portugal. She earned $370, enough to cover a hotel room but not the costs of flights to and from Nottingham, where she competed either side of the event.
At times Birrell longed to come home as she “struggled to find [her] identity again on the court”, but the cost of flights in the post-pandemic world was restrictive.
“My confidence was so low … and I did not feel like I belonged yet,” she says.
But a qualifying match in Portugal at a low-tier tournament last July, where she “fought and got ugly” and saved match points, reminded her why she loved tennis.
Birrell has not looked back and is now on the verge of breaking into the Top 100 – and will earn at least $113,000 at Roland Garros. She has returned to Paris for the first time since 2019 and it was in the city of love that year where the pain in her elbow forced her to take stock of her life.
Later on Thursday Birrell will find out who her first opponent is. But being back at Roland Garros is a triumph in itself.