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.