Even in a sport with an incredibly high threshold to flourish dramatically, tennis outdid itself on Tuesday night with the announcement that WTA Tour No. 1 player, Australian Ash Barty, was retiring at 25. When it comes to athletes conforming to the cliché and ‘going over the top’, you’re unlikely to find a more stark example. Barty isn’t just atop the WTA rankings; she’s weeks away from winning the most recent major tournament, the Australian Open 2022. And did it without dropping a set. And she won 25 of her last 26 matches. And at 25, she was – and still is – at the peak of her career , this in a sport where Serena Williams and Venus Williams are still active in their forties.
But here’s the truth: while Australian media have already described this as a “shock announcement”, it is anything but. Even as Barty dominated the Australian Open in January, rumors swirled in the players’ lounge that she could collect the trophy and remove the microphone. Here is a player who had already retired as a teenager, mainly for the simple reason that tennis no longer appealed to her. (After a year that famously included a stint in cricket, Barty returned to tennis rejuvenated.) Here’s one player who spoke openly about both the hardships COVID-19 travel restrictions had placed on her mental health and of his desire to start a family. If you were writing endings, what could be more culminating than a prototype fair dinkum Aussie winning his country’s major – the first local champion in over 40 years to do so – and coming out gracefully?
Barty’s career will be remembered for his three major titles: Open de France 2019; Wimbledon 2021; Australian Open 2021. For the 114 straight weeks she has been at No. 1, the fourth-highest streak in WTA history. For the 15 overall titles in singles. The dozen titles in duplicate. But these are only Wikipedia-style entries.
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But within tennis and among his peers, Barty represented more: something resembling flamboyant authenticity. Last year, a GIF went around of Barty cheering like crazy during an Aussie rules football match. For all the jokes about her punches, her beer drinking and her Aussie archetype, here’s what was lost: she was sitting in the crowd. Not in the suites.
Even at the height of his powers, Barty wanted nothing to do with the trappings of tennis stardom. She would rather be at home than filming a commercial or attending a premiere. So she went home. She would rather not expose her life to the world on Instagram or lend her name to a product she would never use. So she didn’t. She grew weary of trips that, even outside of COVID Times, usually involved crossing an ocean to play. So she planned accordingly.
She is weeks away from turning 26 and inevitably this announcement will spark speculation about the chances of her reversing that decision and “not retiring” just as she did as a teenager. She could come back. She couldn’t. But she leaves tennis at No. 1. She leaves as a universally loved player. She walks away with Hall of Fame credentials. What better time to take stock of yourself, your priorities, and say, G’Day?
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