In the first few weeks of 2022, Ashleigh Barty scripted perhaps the most dominating run of results women’s tennis had witnessed in decades. After losing the first set against the gifted American youngster Coco Gauff at the Adelaide International, Barty went on to win that match. She then scripted another ten victories to win the Adelaide International and the Australian Open without losing another set. She won her quarterfinal at the Australian Open against Jessica Pegula, ranked 21 in the world 6-2, 6-0. In the semifinal, she beat former US Open finalist Madison Keys 6-1, 6-3.
If the matches went by all too quickly, the highlight reels ought to be played again and again:They featured Barty’s delicate touch, her hypnotic backhand slice, the uncanny ability to serve an ace when needed, forehand shots at impossible angles. That run of eleven wins magically distilled all of these talents,which over the past few years had made her among the most popular champions ever.The sports columnist Greg Baum wrote poetically in the Sydney Morning Herald on Barty’s Australian Open master classes. Baum’s report also paid tribute to her post-match protocol of graciously leading the applause for her opponents as they exited the court, “Barty is knocking them down as gently as she can, and picking them up at the end and thanking them. She is putting together a tournament for the ages, but so smoothly and swiftly that you might not notice.”
It is partly because of this immaculate performance that Barty’s decision, announced last week, to retire at the age of 25, has sent shock waves through the sport. The closest parallel is the Swedish great Bjorn Borg’s even more abrupt retirement at the age of 26 in September 1981. But Borg had been dethroned that year as world number 1 after five successive years at the top by John McEnroe, who beat him in both the Wimbledon and US Open finals that year. Barty, on the other hand, is exiting at the top, having also won Wimbledon last summer. It seemed that if she had wanted, she might even have pieced together a Calendar-year Grand Slam, given that she has been a player for all surfaces and seasons.
This wistful, occasionally despairing sense of what might have been coloured the commentary of Christopher Clarey in the New York Times. “If Barty remains retired, she will never win a U.S. Open singles title, never win an Olympic gold medal, never, with her complete set of tennis tools, achieve the calendar-year Grand Slam that her Australian predecessors Rod Laver and Margaret Court won more than 50 years ago,” he wrote.
The abrupt announcement, which came with little warning, beyond Barty’s decision to pull out of Indian Wells and the Miami Open, is spectacularly poorly timed for tennis. The women’s game has been drifting for the past year or so. Barty had acted as an anchor for the sport, following Naomi Osaka’s struggles with mental health issues. Instead of what could have been a great rivalry, similar to that between Serena Williams and Justin Henin, the sport has first seen Osaka withdraw from two Grand Slams last year, and now Barty retire altogether. Last year’s four women’s Grand Slam finals featured eight different finalists. This has been lauded as proof that women’s tennis has never been more competitive, but sports also thrive on great rivalries. Instead, women’s tennis has seemed almost anarchic.
Barty’s announcement came in the form of a warm and heartfelt Instagram video conversation with her friend and former doubles partner Casey Dellacqua. However, those wondering about Barty’s reasons for retiring would have found few answers. Barty suggested she had suffered a burn out due to the pressures of competing and training every day.“I know how much work it takes to bring the best out of yourself. It’s just I don’t have that in me anymore. I don’t have the physical drive, the emotional want and kind of everything it takes to challenge yourself at the very top level anymore,” she said. Barty then summed it up, “I think I just know that I’m absolutely… I am spent.”
For someone known to be direct in her interviews, Barty’s announcement left more questions. What seemed to be left unsaid was perhaps that the rigours of travel away from her beloved home and family in suburban Brisbane finally got to be too much for Barty. Australia had some of the strictest quarantine rules in the world, which contributed to Barty opting out of competition overseas in 2020 altogether and staying home instead. Last summer, after months away from home and a shock loss to Shelby Rogers early in the US Open in September, she returned to Australia and hadn’t competed overseas since. Barty was engaged to the golfer Garry Kissick in November and is to be married this year. None of this was discussed, but Barty did say this: “I want to chase after some other dreams that I’ve always wanted. I’ve always had that really healthy balance.”
That ‘balance’ has sometimes seemed like incoherence for a professional athlete. For someone who won the junior Wimbledon Grand Slam at the age of 15, it is surprising that Barty will retire with just three Grand Slams. In addition to Wimbledon and the Australian in the last nine months, she won the French Open in 2019. She took 18 months off from the sport in 2014 because the pressure of expectations at such a young age proved too much. She played cricket for the first time outside of the backyard in her childhood home and became good enough to play for a professional women’s cricket league team in Queensland.Andy Richards, then coach of the Queensland Fire team, gave the 18-year-old Barty a borrowed bat, gloves and helmet and put her in front of a bowling machine. She missed just two balls of the first 150. "She didn't get out. She was caught a few times,” Richards told The Age. “From a coaching perspective, it was incredible.”
In one of the most revealing accounts of a sportswoman instantly transitioning from one sport to another as if by the flick of a switch,The Age wrote of that first session, “Many of the nuances of good batting, some that can take years to nurture or coach, were inbuilt.”
Barty’s talent shines alongside the deep affection that her fans and opponents feel towards her, in a manner similar to her idol Evonne Goolagong Cawley, the indigenous Australian star of the 1970s. After an upset defeat of Barty in the third round of the US Open last year, Rogers told the crowd, “She’s always encouraging to everybody around her. She brings up the energy wherever she goes. I can’t say how much respect I have for her.” Then in a moving eulogy that also retrospectively offers clues to Barty’s retirement last week, Rogers continued, “I want to speak to what she’s done this season. She hasn’t been able to go home since February, you guys. That’s insane. I mean, she’s resetting on the road. She’s worked through some injuries on the road. She’s won five titles. She’s remained No 1. This girl is everything every player wants to be.”
Rahul Jacob was the travel, food and drink editor for the Financial Times in London and is the author of Right Of Passage, a collection of travel essays.