Ash Barty reminds tennis players to take a break

There are always so many storylines and nuances to explore and unpack at the end of a major tournament. The women’s Australian Open is now over for 2022. Champion Ashleigh Barty offers so many lessons to the tennis community and the specific band of brothers and sisters who play tennis professionally at various levels. I’ll focus on one of those lessons here. Other lessons can be unpacked at other outlets or at a later point in time (or both).

The lesson worth amplifying here is that Ash Barty has reminded tennis players that it’s not only okay, but is sometimes fully necessary, to take a break.

You will recall that Rafael Nadal’s huge 2013 season — winning the Canada-Cincinnati-U.S. Open triple — came after an extended injury layoff. Nadal has 20 major titles — one match away from No. 21 if he can beat Daniil Medvedev in Sunday’s final — in part because he has been able to regather himself after several different prolonged injury-based absences from the tour.

Marin Cilic’s one major title, the 2014 U.S. Open, came after a long layoff, albeit an unplanned one.

Roger Federer’s huge 2017 season of renewal and reinvention came after an extended injury break.

It is noticeable how many great major tournaments or great seasons of performance in recent years have followed prolonged breaks from the grind of the tour.

The message is clear: It’s okay to step back for several months. It’s okay to not play tournaments if the physical grind of the tour is too much. It’s okay to sit back and recharge the batteries and maybe take time off the grid to reconsider an approach.

Yes, at the lower tiers of the sport, this is much harder to do. Fully understood. The pay isn’t great, and the need to accumulate points is acute. Yet, even then, the larger principle remains: Pro athletes, especially in solo-athlete sports in which they can choose to participate in or pull out of competitions, have to put themselves in a good position to compete and win. It doesn’t do an athlete any good to play in a tournament if that athlete is not in a good position to play well. It might mean a missed paycheck for that week or fortnight, but a career is a bigger enterprise than one tournament. If punting one event makes a year or a three-month swing more sustainable, that’s generally if not always the right choice.

Ash Barty could have picked up a fat paycheck by playing the WTA Finals in Guadalajara. She was always going to skip the October iteration of Indian Wells so that she could rest and recover after living out of a hotel and a suitcase for the vast majority of 2021. Yet, playing Guadalajara — after a month or so off the grid — easily could have been done. She could have simply shown up and taken a few losses, plus the paycheck.

Nope. Resting fully, recovering fully, and mentally resetting for this Australian Open and the 2022 season were the priorities for Barty.

Here we are, at the end of January. Barty just won the Australian Open without dropping a set. She was dominant in 13 of the 14 sets she played at this tournament, and mentally tough in the 14th set, coming back from 5-1 down in the second to finish off Danielle Collins.

Barty didn’t chase points or money. She didn’t have to. After several months away from Australia, coming home to a familiar living space and a comfortable bed mattered quite a lot … and Ash Barty turned that comfort, that restoration, into maximum performance and elite results.

It’s a lesson for every tennis player and pro athlete to learn: Take a break if you reasonably can. Being a champion sometimes means passing up a fat paycheck or a quick financial sweetener. If athletes really are focused on winning, not just on making a living, taking a break is important… and of course, by “taking a break,” I don’t mean winning a 30-40 point on the opponent’s serve.

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