Perhaps the only surprise behind the retirement note from the world’s leading female tennis player is that we should be surprised at all.
At just 25, holding the Wimbledon and Australian Open crowns and seemingly irrevocably wedged into the world No. 1 slot, Ash Barty should be at her most imperious.
There is, you’d think, another 10 years in the game should she want it, a decade in which to add to her three major titles and maybe bag a missing Billie Jean King (formerly Federation) Cup or Olympic crown to boot.
That this is a route she is done with is made plain about four minutes into her six-minute Instagram video posted at lunchtime on Wednesday.
Nothing more to give
Her happiness is no longer dependent upon results, says Ash. And what’s more, she’s done in, knackered, finished.
“I am spent physically, I have nothing more to give. I have given everything I can to this beautiful sport of tennis,” she says.
“Success for me is knowing I have given everything I can. I know how much work it takes to bring the best out of yourself, I don’t have that in me any more, I don’t have the physical drive or emotional want and everything it takes to challenge yourself at the very top level anymore.”
Again, should we be surprised? Look back at her record over the past couple of years and it is almost non-existent, with just 16 tournaments played since the 2020 Australian Open.
Did we raise an eyebrow that she didn’t play Indian Wells (the game’s unofficial ‘fifth major’) last week. Or Miami, another huge showing, this week? No.
This year she has not played at all since Melbourne and it is hard to take her at anything other than face value when she says she just can’t hack it anymore. It is a startling, and terminal, admission.
First things first: Ash Barty is a good person, let alone a world-class tennis player. Those within the game speak highly of her and that does not always come easily. She has time and a good word for everyone. Her ‘et tu Brute’ moment will never come.
Her popularity spans the board. National women’s team captain Alicia Molik is a longstanding fan.
“When Ash goes back to Brisbane she is happy to practice with (lower- ranked) girls. That knocks on very quickly, you get that confidence and sense of belonging from playing people at a higher level,” Molik said just before Barty won her first major, the French Open, in 2019.
Speak to any of the junior players and they will endorse this whole- heartedly. Lizette Cabrera (ranked 185) and Jamie Fourlis (246) for example, will willingly talk non-stop about Barty’s open and friendly persona.
“Australians like to feel they know the person,” says Molik. “Ash is the girl next door, she is approachable.”
Yet herein lies the crux. Do we really know Ash? Very probably not, though arguably the clues behind yesterday’s bombshell have been there for some time.
‘Ash Barty the person’
The announcement was made, in very 2022 fashion, through her own social media and was a very fabricated affair, a six-minute chat with her great pal, and former doubles partner, Casey Dellacqua.
“I have a slight inkling I know why I am here,” says Casey disingenuously at the start before a near four-minute love-in. Hard questions are not asked and we’re none the wiser as to what Ash will do next or what prompted her decision and why now.
She has been tutored well in this respect by leading mindset coach Ben Crowe, who helped restore the fortunes of the Australian cricket team and Richmond Football Club. Ash gives very little away publicly albeit she is aided always by Australian television, which has recruited a bevy of her mates to ask the most gushing, innocuous questions at every post-match on-court chat. It is beyond embarrassing and equally ungiving.
Pointedly, Crowe has previously said “Ash knows tennis is what she does, it is not who she is”, and the last two minutes of her Instagram message bear this out.
Barty talks about having “so many dreams she wants to chase after that don’t necessarily involve travelling the world, being away from my family and home which is where I have always wanted to be”.
“I will never, ever stop loving tennis, but now it’s important I get to enjoy the next phase of my life as Ash Barty the person and not the athlete.”
At which point in the video she becomes teary and genuinely upset. It will have been a momentous decision but we should not be surprised.
She has retired before, of course, in 2014 when she took a couple of years off and became good enough to turn out for Brisbane Heat in the women’s Big Bash cricket league. But to be fair, that was different, a very young girl still who had overachieved and found herself perennially away from home and not a little lost. She had the nerve to make the call and the verve to return to the game enhanced and motivated two years later.
This time though it already feels final but the reasons are not yet forthcoming. She has plans she says but the consensus might be that at just 25, surely these can wait?
But the imponderables stack up.
Is she injured? We don’t yet know (there is a Thursday media conference that should clear this up) but her playing schedule is not that of the super-fit athlete. For one reason or another she ducks an awful lot of tournaments.
Then there’s Wimbledon. Winning that last year was her “one true dream” she says. Wimbledon remains the holy grail for all tennis players and to be a champion there is understandably a career high. But she could win more majors – the women’s game is not at its strongest right now by any stretch of the imagination – and the opportunity to defend a single title on the SW19 grass is perhaps the sport’s highest honour. To deny herself that opportunity will not come easily and can only really be explained by her admission that she is done in.
She will regret not turning out at Wimbledon in little more than three months but the greater regret may be that if she did so in a condition far from her peak she would cheating herself and all others and that would not sit easily with her.
Winning the US Open in September – the only missing singles major – is a long shot, Even her coach Craig Tyzzer recently dismissed her chances, saying the ball used for the women’s game in New York does not suit Barty’s play.
A great legacy
So, to her legacy, which is already potentially immense.
First throw in the caveat that many great players who retire early very soon miss their sport and invariably make an ill-advised comeback. Bjorn Borg, who packed it in at 26, failed miserably when he attempted to rejoin a game that had moved on from his wooden racquet playing days (a detail that remarkably Borg apparently hadn’t picked up on as he turned out once more with his trusty wooden Donnay in hand) while his nemesis John McEnroe famously took a six-month break at 25 and never came close to claiming a major again.
Then there’s Martina Hingis, five singles’ slams at 22 years old and who retried though injury only to fail in her bid to reclaim her glory days a few years later. Lose the momentum and you’re stuffed, is the message.
Ash has lost her momentum but it is highly unlikely she has lost her mind.
With $23 million on-court career earnings, and most likely way more off court, she has the fortune and time to do something she sees as more worthwhile.
She is very much a family-loving woman at heart and appeared to embrace the opportunity that COVID presented to stay at home and not travel. She talks enthusiastically about her Indigenous heritage and last month posted pictures of her time in the Uluru-Kata Tjuta national park helping deliver the Northern Territory’s Racquets and Red Dust program to local children.
It will be a surprise to equal her retirement jolt should she not follow up such good works to help foster sport and healthy lives among disadvantaged communities.
There is the nagging doubt, though, that stepping back has come too soon. She has played professionally since she was very young and, despite her cricket hiatus, has had a long career in the game, but it is in the past three years, and really since Wimbledon last July, that it has spiralled inescapably.
With that comes pressure – within hours of yesterday’s video Prime Minister Scott Morrison had jumped on board with his well wishes – and despite her confident public face, Barty is not a public person. Not at all.
She falls short as Australia’s best female tennis player – like it or not. Margaret Court and Evonne Goolagong Cawley are aeons ahead in this respect – however, she is most probably our most popular female player.
Do some good works off court now, and she will soar even higher. And rightly so.
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