Wednesday, March 23, 2022

Ash Barty leaves at the top of her game

World number 1 Ashleigh Barty, at 25 years of age, has retired from professional tennis. Her announcement this week was—on the one hand—a bit of a shock, but—on the other hand—totally in line with the way that Barty lives her life.

When I first saw Ash Barty playing doubles on the tour, I thought that she was on her way to becoming a huge doubles star. Indeed, the Australian would go on to win twelve doubles titles, including one major—the 2018 U.S. Open (with Coco Vandeweghe); she would also be part of the runner-up team in five other majors.

But Barty had singles on her mind, and—while she continued to play doubles—her focus switched to her singles performance. But it wasn’t a conventional transition; in 2014, after playing for just a few years on the tour, Barty announced that she taking an indefinite leave. She was eighteen at the time, and said that she didn’t like traveling all the time, and missing out on experiencing a more normal teenage life.

It was startling to hear an adolescent display this much autonomy, especially in a field in which you can be a star one day and a “didn’t she used to be top 20?” the next. But Ash Barty did what she thought was the healthy thing to do. And she did it with style, becoming a member of the Women’s Big Bash League’s Brisbane Heat cricket team, which led to her eventually entering the league’s top 20.

Two years later, she quit cricket and returned to tennis. Barty won fifteen singles titles, including the 2019 French Open, the 2021 Wimbledon tournament, and the 2022 Australian Open. She also won the WTA Finals in 2018, and was a member of the Australian Fed Cup (now Billie Jean King Cup) team for five years.

During the most intense period of the Covid pandemic, Barty took the year off and played golf—and won a tournament. When she won Wimbledon the next year, I wrote this:

A doubles star who leaves tennis behind for two years in order to sort things out and to play professional cricket, then returns to become number 1 in the world in singles--wins the French Open, then takes a year off because of the pandemic, during which time she wins a golf tournament. Then injures her hip at the French Open, but shows up at Wimbledon--and wins the title.

Oh, that movie is too over-the-top to be made! It was, however, exactly what happened in the professional life of Ash Barty, 2021 Wimbledon singles champion, and world number 1. 

We await the sequel.

The sequel was pretty good. Barty not only went on to win the Australian Open, she also ended three straight seasons as number 1 in the world in singles, which is a rare feat. The Australian star is only the second WTA player to retire while she still holds the number 1 ranking (Justine Henin was the other one). 

In announcing her retirement, Barty said: “I don’t have the physical drive, the emotional want, and  kind of everything it takes to challenge yourself at the very top of the level anymore….I am spent. Physically, I have nothing more to give….I’ve given everything I can to this beautiful sport of tennis.”

And that is such an Ash Barty statement—candid and to the point, and minus the flourishes and TV-speak that characterizes so much of what celebrities (and many others) say. 

I don’t especially like the idea that athletes are automatically considered to be “role  models,” but—in many cases—they are. And for little girls and teen girls, there could be no better role model than a woman who always does what she knows is best for her, no matter how “different” it may appear to others, and no matter what others think about it, or what others expect her to do. Girls are still conditioned to do what’s best for others, often at their own expense.

There’s also a lot to emulate in Barty’s level-headed approach to life, calm demeanor, gracious sportswomanship, and vocal respect for everyone on her team. 

It’s always sad when a beloved player leaves the tour, and Ash Barty will be sorely missed. We were so fortunate to have her on the tour. As she said when she explained why she decided to announce her retirement via an interview with dear friend and former doubles partner Casey Dellacqua: “There’s no right way, there’s no wrong way—it’s just my way.”

Her way has served Barty quite well so far, and will undoubtedly continue to do so. In the meantime, we are all lucky to have been guests at the glorious Barty Party.

Thursday, March 3, 2022

The WTA--wonderfully unpredictable

There are fans who complain that there is no "big" rivalry on the WTA tour. There are fans who complain that there is no one big, consistent champion on the tour. To each her own, but neither of those things bothers me; in fact, I rather like everything just the way it is. This is a tour with great depth, and depth brings unpredictability. 

It's the same on the LPGA tour. Occasionally, a consistent champion will arise, but most of the time, there are various elite players who win tournaments, including the majors. 

This year is likely to be a shiny mirror of the tour's current depth. World number 1 Ash Barty won her home major in Australia, which was thrilling, and Barty is likely to be a threat at all the majors. But the start of the 2022 season shows us that there are threats (not just at majors, but at all tournaments) popping up in all corners. For example, there is no bigger story right now than the rise of Anett Kontaveit. I'm happy to say that I was expecting big things of the Estonian for years, and she finally found a way to rise to those expectations.

Kontaveit, playing a more aggressive game than in the past--and with an improved serve-- announced herself as a top player in 2021, and she recently won her sixth WTA title. She is now number 5 in the world.

Then there's the resurgence of Alona Ostapenko, which also began in 2021, but has strengthened since the current season began. She recently won Dubai, while demonstrating the ferocious form that earned her the 2017 French Open title. But Ostapenko (who is still having trouble with her serve) has also learned to use a bit of finesse, which may be a result of her successful doubles career.

Bring in Iga Swiatek, who has never had the "typical" post-first major title letdown. After winning the 2020 French Open, Swiatek just kept rolling, reaching at least the fourth round of every major in 2021, and the semifinals of the 2022 Australian Open. Swiatek, who is ranked number 4 in the world, recently won the Doha tournament.

Also in the mix is Paula Badosa, the defending Indian Wells champion. The Spaniard, with her big serve and explosive style, reached the semifinals of the 2021 WTA Finals, and is already ranked number 6 in the world. 

We've also seen a steady resurgence, since 2021, from two-time major champion and world number 9 Garbine Muguruza. World number 2 Barbora Krejcikova remains a threat to all opponents, and both Maria Sakkari (number 7 in the world) and Ons Jabeur (number 10) are continuing to rise in both skill and confidence. Toss in Aryna Sabalenka, Karolina Pliskova and Danielle Collins, and you have a recipe for "anything can happen."

It doesn't end there, of course. It's logical to expect Simona Halep to return to form; she always does. Madison Keys is another player who has been playing more to form lately, and it will be interesting to see what Elina Svitolina has to offer this season. It will also be a pleasure to keep our eyes on the 2021 U.S. Open surprise finalists--Emma Raducanu and Leylah Fernandez. 

There are others, of course, who could break through in various ways--too many to list here. The point is that we are likely to have some new champions, and to also have some surprises. What's not to like?