From winning to retirement: Humble champion Ash Barty does things her way

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ASH BARTY MADE no attempt to hide the outpouring of emotion after she whipped a forehand past Danielle Collins to clinch the Australian Open title in January. At the time, her gargantuan roar and the tears that streamed down her cheeks appeared to be the byproduct of finally having the weight of an entire nation starved of Grand Slam success lifted off her shoulders.

But perhaps there was more to it.

Barty stunned the sports world Wednesday when she took to social media and announced via an emotional video she would be retiring from tennis, effective immediately.

“I don’t have the physical drive, the emotional want and everything it takes to challenge yourself at the very top of the level any more. I am spent,” Barty revealed. “I’m so happy and I’m so ready. I just know at the moment in my heart for me as a person this is right.”

It’s truly an unprecedented move.

Barty, 25, is the current world No. 1 and has held that ranking for 114 consecutive weeks — the fourth-longest streak in WTA history. She is the reigning champion of both Wimbledon and the Australian Open, and has won more titles since the beginning of 2017 than any other player on the women’s tour.

The only comparable tennis retirement would be Belgian star Justine Henin, who also called time on her career while holding the No. 1 ranking. But even when Henin announced her retirement in 2008, it wasn’t off the back of a major triumph. The last time we saw Barty on the court, she was literally being presented the Daphne Akhurst Memorial Cup by mentor and friend Evonne Goolagong Cawley.

Fans would be mistaken for thinking this is the second tennis retirement of Barty’s career. Instead, her two-year hiatus between 2015 and 2016 — when she played professional cricket in Brisbane — was always intended to be a step away from the sport, as opposed to a complete retirement.

It was a break that worked wonders. Barty returned to the court refreshed, reenergized and in a far better headspace in 2017. Just 24 months later she was the French Open champion, and victory at the WTA Finals followed later that year, which saw her end the season as the world’s top-ranked player.

“I needed time to step away, to live a normal life. I think I needed time to grow as a person, to mature,” Barty said after winning at Roland Garros. “This tennis life certainly isn’t normal.”

After falling in the semifinals of the 2020 Australian Open, just as COVID-19 began spreading rapidly around the globe, Barty opted to remain in Australia and skip the rest of the season. She would return in 2021, winning Wimbledon in July before adding her home title of the Australian Open seven months later.

Barty’s win in Melbourne earlier this year put her in rare company. Of active players, she joined Roger Federer, Rafael Nadal, Novak Djokovic and Serena Williams as players to have won major singles titles on all three surfaces.

“I feel very humble to be in such a select group,” Barty said upon learning what she had achieved. “To be honest, I don’t really feel like I belong with those champions of our sport.”

Barty’s rise up the tennis rankings came when Australia needed it most. The men’s side had been a revolving door of drama and untapped potential for the better part of a decade, and although Sam Stosur triumphed at the US Open in 2011, her failure to go deep at Melbourne Park was a constant frustration among tennis faithful.

But as successful as she would become, in Australia, Barty was admired more for her laidback, carefree attitude. She was everything Australians love about Australians: genuine, honest, friendly and, maybe most significantly, humble. Globally she was widely admired by her contemporaries, and one of the most popular players on tour. A controversy-free tennis player. In many ways she was the perfect athlete.

While it wasn’t a retirement at the end of 2015, Barty’s two-year absence did highlight the fact she could live without tennis. It was her job. She took it seriously, and would become the best in the world at it. But she wasn’t reliant on it. The constant travel, expectation and fame never really sat well with her, and while many of her contemporaries were moving and settling in the tax haven principality of Monaco, Barty was more than content living her best life in Ipswich, in the western suburbs of Brisbane.

Barty’s announcement comes as a huge shock, but when you dig a little deeper, it’s not exactly surprising that she’s hanging up the rackets and transitioning into the next phase of her life. There’s little doubt she could double her career prize money — which stands at US$23,829,071 — and add a couple more Slams to her résumé if she continued, but Barty has earned the right to decide when to step away. That time appears to be now.

What the future holds is unknown. Barty herself talked in her retirement video about being “Ash Barty the person for a while,” and speculation has already begun that a third sporting career could be in her future, with AFLW, the Australian rules women’s competition, touted for the passionate footy fan. Add the LPGA Tour to the list with Barty a scratch competitor and a local champion in 2021.

But that’s for another day. For now, it’s a moment to reflect on a short, yet remarkable career. And as any great performer or artist will tell you, always leave them wanting more. It’s safe to say Barty has ended on a high note.

In her final news conference at the Australian Open, she was asked what advice she’d give her younger self, the child seen in a oft-shared image of one of Ash’s early successes. The answer: “Be patient, have fun, trust your gut every day of the week.”

She has trusted her gut again, and with her track record and a stellar career behind her, why not?

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