Northern Territory, Australia , 28 February 2022 | Tennis Australia

Ash Barty is a Grand Slam champion on every official surface, lifting major trophies in iconic cities throughout the world.

But no surface or setting is as special to the world No.1 as the ones she experienced on the red dust at Uluru and Alice Springs (Mparntwe), Central Australia, which Barty visited this week in her role as Tennis Australia’s First Nations Ambassador.

As she learned more about the sacred sites with local cultural advisors and National Parks representatives including Anangu Media Advisor Nicky Zimran and Meegan Ebert, it was equally special for Barty to connect with members of the Muṯitjulu School and community, from Pitjantjatjara Yankunytjatjara country in Uluṟu-Kata Tjuta National Park.

“It’s really hard to put into words, just because it’s a feeling,” said Barty. “When you actually go to Uluru for the first time like I did, it was just an incredible experience for me to understand how much of a spiritual connection Uluru has for so many communities.

“But also as a child, as an Aboriginal girl growing up, it’s the heartbeat of our nation … being able to experience that first-hand is something I always wanted to do.

“To be able to allow myself, through my profession and through my career to have this opportunity was really special.”

A proud Ngarigo woman, Barty was delighted to hit with young players from Mutitjulu School as part of the Racquets and Red Dust program on a Hot Shots court with the iconic Uluru scenery as a backdrop.

Racquets and Red Dust, run by Tennis NT’s Indigenous Programs Lead and Ramindjeri man Anzac Leidig, in collaboration with Inclusion and Diversity Manager Beth Caird, aims to create sustainable tennis pathways for First Nations people to experience and try tennis, while also ensuring priority is placed on positive health, education and social outcomes.

Over the past 18 months, Anzac and Beth have travelled thousands of kilometres to deliver the Racquets and Red Dust program across the Top End, visiting more than 1500 First Nations people and more than 20 different communities from the Tiwi Islands to Pitjantjatjara Yankunytjatjara country. It is part of their mission to introduce the program to all regions of the Northern Territory and provide more opportunities and positive communities outcomes.

Barty also visited Alice Springs (Mparntwe), where young First Nations students from four schools including Braitling Primary, Gillen Primary, Our Lady of Sacred Heart and Living Waters Primary experienced a Racquets and Red Dust lesson.

“They are incredible athletes … they started playing tennis a couple of days ago and we were already having some rallies, which is just mind-blowing,” said Barty, who notes how tennis can provide an “incredible vehicle” to health, education and overall enhanced opportunities in life.

“I think it brings people together first and foremost. It allows people to feel safe in an environment,” she explained.

“Of course, there’s the health and wellbeing attributes that come with being fit, being outdoors and I think the education also comes with the opportunity. It’s learning a new skill, it’s talking to people, it’s learning different ways of life, connecting with people that come from all walks of life.”

Meanwhile, providing opportunities for First Nations youth to experience tennis continues in other ways, with a host of initiatives being run by Tennis Australia and state associations around the country, culminating with the National Indigenous Tennis Carnival being hosted in Darwin this coming August.

In addition, the Australian Tennis Foundation is also working on a new partnership between Tennis NT and Wanta Aboriginal Corporation to introduce the Racquets and Red Dust program to a further nine communities.

The energy drawn from Barty’s first visit to Central Australia will stay strong.

“We were in the heartbeat of our country, the heartbeat of our nation and for me to be there, I feel extremely fortunate and lucky to get to experience that,” she smiled.