LONDON -- As a girl growing up in Queensland, Ash Barty dreamt of one day competing on the biggest stage, playing a match in her mind for Wimbledon glory.
On Saturday, she will get the chance to do it for real when she plays former world No. 1 Karolina Pliskova in the final. Two years after her breakthrough win at the French Open and 50 years after fellow Australian Evonne Goolagong won her first Wimbledon title, Barty, 25, has the chance to fulfill her dream.
"I've had an incredible journey," Barty said after her hard-fought 6-3, 7-6 (3) win over former champion Angelique Kerber, Barty's broad smile beaming. "It's had its ups and downs, but I wouldn't change a single thing. I have a chance now to live out a childhood dream."
It began when she was just 4 years old and convinced local coach Jim Joyce to let her join in a coaching session, even though she was younger than others. He soon saw the talent in Barty and taught her every single shot, insisting she have variety.
Joyce taught Barty a kick serve and sliced backhand when she was really young, a foundation for the game evidently seen today, her all-round brilliance making her a threat on every surface.
Barty needed patience, courage and self-belief to withstand defeats as she learned to put her game together, but Joyce's words lived long in her memory, convincing her to trust in her playing style.
"I think once you start playing more tennis when you're younger, start understanding what is in the world of tennis, I think you dare to dream," Barty said.
"When you're a kid, the possibilities in your mind are endless. I think as you kind of get older, get more experienced, obviously with that you know there's a lot more that comes with it. It's almost not just a pipe dream; it's kind of a reality. It could be a reality."
It has been 10 years since Barty won the junior title at Wimbledon, a 15-year-old with the ideal game for grass, her slice a weapon and her ability to think on her feet and find a way to win, no matter what, perhaps her greatest trait.
When she stepped away from the sport at 18 and began to play cricket instead, the tennis world was stunned. Behind the scenes, though, Barty said she was suffering from burnout and depression and knew she had to take time out if she wanted to have a longer career in the game.
The break, which lasted just over a year, worked wonders. Working with Craig Tyzzer, she has worked her way to the top, her all-court game a thing of beauty, blunting the power of the bigger hitters, outfoxing even the best of them.
When the WTA suspended play in March 2020 as the COVID-19 pandemic hit, she took time off and even stayed away when play returned, deciding to remain in Australia with family while others picked up Grand Slam titles.
"I think a lot of the time your greatest growth comes from your darkest times," Barty said. "I think that's why this tournament has been so important to me. I've learned so much with all my experiences, the good, bad, everything in between I've been able to learn from."
But that decision was ultimately redeemed by a superb run on clay this year, withdrawing from the French Open due to a hip injury that threatened her participation at Wimbledon.
She made it, though, and has grown with every match, now standing one win from joining the list of Australian greats to triumph at Wimbledon, from Goolagong and Margaret Court on the women's side, to Rod Laver, who was quick to congratulate Barty on Thursday.
"I wasn't sure if it would ever happen, honestly," Barty said. "I think you have to keep putting yourself in the position. I think Wimbledon for me has been an amazing place of learning. Ten years ago, I came here for the first time as a junior and learned a lot in that week.
"Probably 2018, 2019 was some of my toughest weeks playing. To come away with our losses in those two tournaments, I learned a hell of a lot from those two times."
When Barty steps out to face Pliskova for the title, instead of thinking about those dark times, don't be surprised if she thinks back to the childhood games and lessons she used to play.
"I think it's just about going out there and remembering how you felt as a kid," Barty said, "that there was the enjoyment, there was the freedom just to go out there and kind of try and do what you can."