Flat White

How do I vote for the ‘Barty Party’?

2 February 2022

12:00 PM

2 February 2022

12:00 PM

In the contrasts between Ash Barty and Nick Kyrgios we see a little of the divisions that rend modern Australian life.

While I’m loathe to use sports stars as moral or ethical exemplars – regarding most of them as ‘knobs’ (a term recently applied to Kyrgios) – sometimes the stars rise above the physical and show us perfections that transcend sport.

Such is the case of Barty. Not only does she exemplify moral virtues, but these are virtues that were thought to inform the ideal Australian culture. While we think of them in terms of our British heritage, they have a much longer pedigree rooted in Greece and Israel.

Watching Barty play is a study in understatement and application. Her physical style is laconic, in parts and stoic in others.

There is no fuss or flourish about any of her play, it is just deadly. She hit the ball harder than just about anyone in the tournament, particularly her second serve, but you wouldn’t know it if it wasn’t for the court-side speed clock.

There are no grunts and screams, just force by mass and acceleration. Function perfectly expressed in form.

When Barty was down 1-5 in the second set after winning the first 6-3, I thought she would probably let that set go, and conserve herself for the third and deciding set.

I was wrong. She clawed all the way back to win 7-6. How do you do this?

It is easy to say she must have supreme self-belief but having watched her play I think it is actually a deeper and more powerful set of beliefs than belief in self.

That’s where the stoic comes in. The four stoic virtues are wisdom, courage, justice/truth, and temperance.

Barty is not an automaton, tuned better than her rivals to do one thing and wearing them down over time. She reads and understands the game and her opponents. She is wise.

She understands that you should only worry about the things you can control, and that thing is the next point, not what happened with the previous point.

She also understands that fortune plays a part. Not every losing shot is your fault, and neither is every winner to your credit – centimetres can separate either and frequently do.

Win or lose a point, you can’t tell from her face – each appears to be alike to her.

This merges with courage. This is not a wisdom for the faint-hearted, as it involves grappling with yourself and your human weaknesses.

To play this way you cannot hide from the truth either. You have to learn the lessons that each shot tells you about yourself and your opponent; discard what is not working and hold on to that which is.

And finally moderation, which Barty has in spades. It was great to see her smile as she held the trophy aloft or had an onscreen beer in a bit of product placement. It’s more than serenity, or not leaning too much one way or the other. Rather it is the thing that pulls you back from what the Greeks called ‘hubris’, a pride in yourself that some might call ‘self-belief’.

Barty’s style is the opposite of self-belief. In the best of her moments she appears to be in a state of almost ‘not-being’. She’s not self-aware, so much as just being in the moment.

Isn’t this the epitome of what we used to think of as the Australian character? Simpson and his donkey at Gallipoli, the boys who held the Japanese back going over the Kokoda trail. The woman left to run the farm while her husband was away droving. The volunteers who put their lives on the line, like surf lifesavers, SES volunteers, Rural Fire Brigades, and so many more, like the images on our paper currency.

Not big noters, but achievers. So modest that their exploits are almost unremarked, so that Donald Horne could get away with libelling that Australian culture in his The Lucky Country as ‘second rate’. They were first rate they just didn’t boast about it.

There used to be plenty of it in Australian tennis – think Yvonne Goolagong Cawley, Margaret Court, Rocket Rod Laver, and John Newcombe. It’s a much rarer commodity these days, which brings me to Nick Kyrgios.

Kyrgios is the best illustration I know of Calvin Coolidge’s dictum that ‘nothing is more common than unsuccessful men with talent’. He’s a representative of the narcissistic culture which is enveloping Australia and challenging the culture that Barty represents.

He’s got talent, but like every other influencer, he measures success by how many people look at him. When interviewed after his doubles victory he boasted that he had brought the crowds out, and even Ash Barty’s dad had congratulated him on that.

Except that Ash and Danielle Collins – two girls – had TV ratings of 4.261 million while he and three other boys had only 3.154 million, which is 26 per cent less on audience, and 63 per cent measured on the basis of productivity per ‘performer’.

It is worse than that. A key Australian attribute is the ‘fair go’. But Kyrgios weaponises his audience like a troop of Twitter trolls to put his opponents off. It becomes not a contest of tennis but psychological warfare and bullying.

The central tenet of postmodernism is that truth is essentially interchangeable with power. If I have power, I control truth, and if I control truth, then I have power. Kyrgios is trying, whether he knows it or not, to parlay this conception into tennis success.

‘If I have the crowd, and my crowd is bigger than your crowd, then I win.’

And if he can’t have success in tennis, because either his opponents can’t be bullied enough, or the rules are just inflexibly objective, then maybe he can parlay it into a fortune anyway.

Being the centre of attention is what counts. He certainly believes in himself, but to what end?

At the moment the narcissists and bullies appear to be winning more broadly in our culture. Take Tennis Australia’s decision to ban people wearing t-shirts saying, ‘Where is Peng-Shuai?’ as the most proximate example. Or more shockingly our universities expelling academics like Peter Ridd for expressing an opinion they didn’t like. Or vaccine mandates.

But Barty gives me hope. I suspect I wouldn’t agree with her politically, but I wholeheartedly support her whole mode of being. Watching her hit the ball is deeply spiritual, whether she looks at it that way or not.

That Barty draws a much larger crowd than the hubristic and narcissistic Kyrgios gives me hope that the Australian spirit not only survives, but thrives, and that it seems submerged because it doesn’t talk itself up, not because it has been defeated.

Maybe it needs to speak up more, because that is what it needs to regain control going forward. Speak up not from self-belief but situational need. It might be down 5:1, but they’re only numbers. It has the game, and the audience will ultimately follow.

They talk about the Barty Party. I wish there were a political one I could vote for, focussed on truth, wisdom, and achievement. Not performative – functioning. Not narcissistic – doing its best in the moment for what is necessary.

I’m convinced there will be one like that, whether new, or out of the ashes of one of the majors. Ash Barty took time off from playing tennis. Many of our best have taken time off from engagement. They’re buried in living a good life, looking after those around them. They just need to be coaxed back. And if they are, they will be well-rewarded.

We’re not playing for silver platters here, we’re playing for the future. It’s a really big trophy.

Graham Young is executive director of the Australian Institute for Progress and founder and editor of On Line Opinion.

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