When I was a kid I had Pat Rafter posters Blu-Tacked to my bedroom wall. Those complimentary ones from the centre of tennis magazines before the internet was really a thing. Andre Agassi was up there, too, and the Woodies and Williams sisters. But Rafter was the real face of my sporting childhood.
I saw him in the flesh only once, warming up on the outside courts one year at the Sydney international. But his face was a fixture on our television screen, through all the times he didn’t win a grand slam and the two times he did.
Those 1997 and 1998 US Open triumphs were, of course, the highlights, but the first is the one seared into my 10-year-old consciousness. I could have been right there with him as he converted match point against Greg Rusedski – via a signature serve-volley – fell onto his back and then, fresh in euphoria, hopped up and climbed a pretty high courtside wall into his supporters’ box.
It was reminiscent of the 1987 Wimbledon final when a mulleted, bandana-wearing Pat Cash beat Ivan Lendl and himself jumped into the stands. To this day, my dad jokes (I think) that he can only remember my birthday because he watched Cash play his way to that Wimbledon trophy from the maternity ward.
That is his memory. Countless Australians will have their own. Because sport loves nostalgia. We love collecting visceral souvenirs of fond moments played out on a court, field, track or swimming pool. Moments we perhaps hold onto with even more affection because of exactly where we were and what we were doing when we witnessed them.
In the decades to come, Ash Barty will be one of these. Her 2019 French Open triumph has already made sure of that. Two years later at Wimbledon, she stands on the precipice of another.
There are a few well-publicised reasons for this. The half-century symmetry with Australia’s 1971 champion, Evonne Goolagong Cawley, is well-documented. An Indigenous contemporary so close to emulating an Indigenous legend. A first female semi-finalist since Jelena Dokic in 2000.
But it is also less cerebral than anniversaries and numbers, and even the sheer delight of the world No 1’s impeccable game. As ever, with sport, it is the person behind the skill. It is Barty’s backstory and resilience that make us cheer each quiet fist pump.
She is, as Alicia Molik put it on Wednesday, a “normal person doing extraordinary things”. We can relate to a girl who grew up in Ipswich and whacked balls against the garage wall, and empathise with a young woman who felt so overwhelmed by fanfare and expectation she took a year off tennis “to experience life as a normal teenaged girl”.
Now we feel as if we know the 25-year-old ploughing her way through opponents at the All England Club. Who arrived at this point despite having withdrawn from the French Open with a hip injury little more than a month ago and being unable to play on grass in any lead-up events to this tournament.
On Thursday night, when we stay up to watch her play Angelique Kerber for a place in the final, it will be a viewing experience overlaying our own, if not while in lockdown then at least during a very strange time.
“I know the people that I love and the people that love me back are watching. They’re living through this journey with me,” Barty said after her quarter-final over compatriot Ajla Tomljanović.
“I love the fact that Australians at home, the fans, are able to get behind all of us that are here … this is my dream. I’m in an extremely fortunate position that I’m getting to do what I love, getting to do what I dreamt as a kid, so I think I’ve just got a whole lot of gratitude for the fact that I get to come out here and do what I love.
“The world, the way we’re living at the moment, I think it’s incredible that we’re able to play, compete, have people enjoy it with us. So I’m certainly enjoying every single minute that I get out on those courts.”
Should she reach the final on Saturday, most of us will not be out and about at, say, a pub in London (Sam Stosur, 2011 US Open) or a cafe in France (Barty, 2019 French Open). But television screens can still be a first-rate vessel for imagination.
Even if she does not get that far, if Kerber proves too much, Barty is already the nostalgic past of Australian sport’s future.