On her terms and timeline, Ashleigh Barty climbs to top at French Open

PARIS -- She just turned 23, and yet it feels as if we've known Ashleigh Barty forever.

Her dimpled smile and businesslike demeanor on court have been familiar sights for years now. She was a junior Wimbledon champion at 15 and a Grand Slam doubles finalist at 16. Any athlete who succeeds at such a young age earns predictable labels -- prodigy, phenom -- and Barty, one of the most well-liked and admired players in tennis, seemed to wear them so well that there was little reason to believe she needed a break until she took one.

The sport is full of kids who flash across our fields of vision, hit the wall and never bounce back. But Barty returned on her own timetable, first mainly to doubles, then gradually to singles, appearing rejuvenated, if one can apply the term to a then-21-year-old. Her time away included a short stint as a professional cricketer -- a game at which she excelled after picking it up from scratch, and loved for its team component.

When she gravitated back to tennis, she initially thought her best chance for a major title would be in doubles, not one-on-one competition, but she craved "the ebbs and the flows, the emotions you get from winning and losing matches," she said. "They are so unique and you can only get them when you're playing and when you put yourself out on the line and when you become vulnerable and try and do things that no one thinks of."

Barty is still young, although inevitably, other, greener seedlings have sprung up around her on the women's tour. Her unexpected finals opponent at Roland Garros on Saturday was 19-year-old Czech lefty Marketa Vondrousova, No. 38 in the WTA rankings, who knocked off four seeded players. Their combined ages were the lowest in a major championship match since Ana Ivanovic and Dinara Safina met in the 2008 French Open championship.

The eighth-seeded Barty executes an impressive variety of things well in her crisp, creative game. All she had to do was fire on all cylinders at once, and that she did, schooling Vondrousova in a 70-minute, 6-1, 6-3 win that was as straightforward as the men's semifinal won by Dominic Thiem was drawn out and theatrical.

Joy and disbelief crossed Barty's expressive face after she scrambled to fetch a defensive lob from Vondrousova near the net post and smashed it home. She became the first Australian in 46 years to hoist the Suzanne-Lenglen Cup, fulfilling two social media prophecies made this week by legendary countryman Rod Laver, who watched from the stands.

One of Barty's only missteps came just before the playing of her national anthem during the trophy ceremony, when she had to be instructed where to stand. All alone at the end of the platform, she gave way to emotion at last and struggled to hold back tears. It didn't matter. Her lyrical style sings for itself.

Saturday's weather-suspended conclusion of Thiem's five-set duel against Novak Djokovic itself paused for more than an hour by rain, pushing the women's championship back by 90 minutes. But Barty, whose matches in the second week of the French Open were disrupted by various climatic and scheduling factors, has been impervious.

Barty eliminated four Americans on her way to the final, including two other teenagers on the uptick, Sofia Kenin, who upset Serena Williams, and Amanda Anisimova, who upended defending champion Simona Halep. Madison Keys, a semifinalist here last year, was the only woman to take a set from her.

Working as if she had a dinner reservation, Barty went up 4-0 in a scant 10 minutes before Vondrousova, still valiantly pounding her heavy groundstrokes, broke her to get on the board. Barty straightened her cap and broke back. And that was the way things went, for the most part, as Barty prevailed on a surface -- clay -- where her early-season ambition was not to "fall over."

"I think overall, me being able to handle different occasions is getting better and better," she said earlier this week. "Regardless of whether it's a Slam, a big tournament, Fed Cup, all of these different occasions I've been thrown into, I feel like we've been able to deal with it really well and, in a way, bring it back to the way I want to play and just simplify it."

She makes it sound easy. Yet Barty's inner strength and outer authenticity have been visible in situations far more challenging than any tennis match, whether it's speaking frankly about her own tussle with burnout; standing up publicly for her former doubles partner, Casey Dellacqua, when Dellacqua was the subject of homophobic comments by past champion Margaret Court; or embracing and celebrating her indigenous heritage.

Her early role model, seven-time Grand Slam singles champion Evonne Goolagong, is the name Barty made sure to seek out among the engravings on the silver trophy.

"Evonne sent me a text a couple days ago and said this was her first Grand Slam," Barty said. "I'll give her a call a little bit later on. It's amazing she's created this path for indigenous tennis in Australia and not -- you know, I think now it's becoming more nationwide. There are more opportunities for kids to start playing tennis, both male and female.

"Hopefully we can continue to create those opportunities and let kids know that this is an option for a career and they can enjoy it. And even if it's not, it's a sport they can play for life."

On court, Barty assured Vondrousova she would reach this stage again. It takes being unafraid to grow up in your own good time, and Barty has shown that can be done without necessarily taking the shortest path between two points.