By Sharada Iyer, Tennis With An Accent
Regardless of the passing hours, Ashleigh Barty’s news that she has decided to retire from professional tennis still hasn’t been processed well by the sport’s global followers.
There’s a sense of incredulity that a person who is so successful that she doesn’t seem to have any rivals has decided to stop it all, right when she has still not been defeated in the calendar year. There has also been an attempt by some to compare her choices to similar decisions taken by former tennis pros, far and few though they have been through the decades.
Neither of these reactions seem to take into consideration that this is what Barty wanted for herself, despite the 25-year-old saying so on more than one occasion in her conversation with one of her closest friends, ex-doubles teammate Casey Dellacqua. “Case,” as Barty calls Dellacqua, is the person through whom Barty wanted to tell the world about her momentous decision.
In that six-minute conversational video with Dellacqua, the World No. 1 emphasised the words “for me” on several occasions. In doing so, she seemed to pointedly imply that this decision wasn’t taken with the thought of wanting to become fodder for comparative analysis, but rather because she was an individual in an individual sport who was entitled to her individuality when deciding what was good for herself, as a person and as a professional.
“I know that people may not understand it. I’m OK with that. Because I know that Ash Barty the person has so many dreams she wants to chase after that don’t necessarily involve travelling the world, being away from my family, from my home, which is where I’ve always wanted to be,” Barty said.
As noteworthy as this statement is, equally significant was her disclosure that while her announcement came as a bolt from the blue for the outside world, Barty had known this been in the cards since her victorious trip at Wimbledon in 2021. That she then found it within herself to give some more time to the sport, which eventually culminated in another triumphant run Down Under, is something truly worth marvelling at. This is true even though – given the person she is, shown both in her actions and words – wrapping up her career at home was the only way for Barty to close the circle of her tennis-playing career.
Beyond the construct of pro tennis, Barty’s desire to remain at home also merits a mention of the new normalcy the world has had to get used to: the COVID-19 pandemic. In the aftermath of the tennis calendar forcibly shutting down in 2020 as the first wave of the pandemic surged in the world, and then resuming in July, tennis players struggled to find a semblance of their former lives while balancing travel restrictions, quarantines and lockdowns.
For Barty, hailing from Australia – which had one of the strictest lockdowns possible in the world – presented a considerable complication relative to the tennis tour. While the tour stopped and restarted in the latter half of 2020, Barty stayed in Australia and spent time as Ash Barty the person rather than leaving her country as a professional athlete. This was her choice to make and she made it without any regrets whatsoever. A year on, in 2021, when the tennis tour had become more accustomed to a parallel existence with COVID-19, Australia’s continuing rigidity in travel rules forced Barty out of her country for almost six months before she finally returned to her home in Brisbane after the U.S. Open in September. There is no other way to describe her Wimbledon win that year except humongous, given the physical, emotional and mental turmoil she must have been wrestling with.
Cue back to the present. Let’s revisit these words from Barty:
“I know how much work it takes to bring the best out of yourself. I’ve said it to my team multiple times, it’s just I don’t have that in me anymore. I don’t have the physical drive, the emotional want, and everything it takes to challenge yourself at the very top of the level anymore, and I just know that I am spent. I just know physically; I have nothing more to give. That, for me, is success.”
It is striking to see Ashleigh Barty define success beyond the numbers and statistics backing her journey to World No. 1. As someone who once stepped away from the game as a teenager as a way of prioritizing herself over the sport’s demands on her before deciding to give it another go, Barty’s success as a tennis pro has emerged because of the maturity she possessed in evaluating how her career should evolve. In that regard, she has used only herself – no one else – as the yardstick to gauge how far she could go and how far she wanted to climb the ever-growing totem-pole of tennis. As of March 23, 2022, this is the farthest point that Barty traversed — contentedly, of her own volition and most significantly, for herself, on her terms.