By Ian Ransom
MELBOURNE (Reuters) - The relentless grind of the professional tennis tour proved too much for Australia's Ashleigh Barty during her teenage years but a break from the game to play cricket appears to be paying some pretty big dividends.
Little more than a year after re-committing to tennis, Barty won her first WTA singles title in Malaysia on Sunday, raising fresh hopes the former Wimbledon junior champion might be on track to fulfill her potential.
There may have been a modest field competing in Kuala Lumpur but it was hard graft for qualifier Barty, who had to win six matches before beating Japan's Nao Hibino in the final.
She managed all that while also winning the doubles tournament with Casey Dellacqua, an added sweetener to an exciting week.
"I think it was very unexpected going into the week, we just wanted to come here and play some good tennis and maybe squeak out three-four-five matches, including doubles," the 20-year-old told Reuters by telephone on Monday.
"Even if we didn't walk away with a title it would have been a fantastic week. We're just really pumped and to get through so many matches with the body unscathed is pretty good, too."
While Barty now heads to Indian Wells with some $48,000 in winnings in the bank, her real prize is a spot in the top 100 in the world rankings.
A career-high ranking of 92 is a position she would never have dreamed of 10 months ago when she played at Eastbourne in the first singles tournament of her comeback.
With few ranking points to defend, Barty is well-positioned to secure direct entry to the year's remaining grand slams - a refreshing change from the grind of qualifying.
Barty first gave notice of her potential with her Wimbledon triumph as a 15-year-old in 2011 and she reached three grand slam doubles finals with Dellacqua in 2013.
Having racked up nearly a million dollars in prize money before her 18th birthday, though, she stunned Australia with her decision to walk away from the sport after the 2014 U.S. Open, seeking a more normal life.
The pull of competitive sport soon lured her into cricket, however, and it was not long before she had secured one of only 14 professional contracts handed to women in her home state of Queensland in 2015.
Although her return to tennis has curtailed her budding cricket career, Barty is still mad for the game and was desperately trying to keep tabs on Australia's tour of India between matches in Kuala Lumpur.
"We had another Aussie physio with the WTA here this week and all week we were checking the cricket scores," she said.
"I was filthy (annoyed) that we couldn't get it on the telly here. The boys are doing well, better than people expected."
Barty has also surpassed expectations since her return to tennis - not that there weren't times last year when she questioned returning to a game that left her physically and emotionally drained the first time round.
There were a number of injury niggles as her body re-adjusted to the demands of being on court and she was quick to praise her coach Craig Tyzzer and physio Narelle Sibte for quickly getting her "over the hump".
"Oh, there were many times in a training bloc (where) I was, like, 'what the hell was I thinking?'," she laughed.
"It was very tough coming back but certainly enjoyable. For us, it's about chipping away ... We're happy now that we can get into a few more tournaments and open a few more doors, hopefully."
(Editing by Nick Mulvenney)