Ashleigh Barty retires: her time at the top was too short for tennis, but not for her

Barty celebrating winning the Australian Open in January

Ashleigh Barty’s ambitions and desires are fully satisfied. Her time at the top was too short for tennis, but not for the most important person.

If winning at Wimbledon was the holy grail, then a lasting achievement was secured in January when Barty became the first domestic Australian Open singles winner in 44 years.

“I [no longer] have a physical drive, an emotional need,” said the 25-year-old.

“I just know that I am absolutely exhausted.”

Perhaps the decision was hastened by the Covid-19 pandemic, with its forced life in a bubble and the difficulty of returning home to Australia.

Last year, Barty spent six months on the road, and in 2014, when she was 18, she suffered from home sickness and depression before taking a two-year hiatus from touring.

But as surprising as this announcement is, with Barty in her 121st week as world number 1, the Queenslander looks like she’ll never play in her 30s.

She is never happier than at home near Brisbane, with family and friends, barbecue tongs in one hand and a cold beer in the other.

There are many parallels with the decision taken by Justine Henin in May 2008.

She was also 25 years old, a world number one and had won two Grand Slams in the previous 12 months. The announcement of her departure just two weeks before the French Open, which the Belgian had won for the previous three years, came as a monumental surprise.

But like Barty, she also said she gave it her all and wants to try her hand at something new.

However, Henin returned for more. Inspired by the fact that Roger Federer ended his Grand Slam streak at Roland Garros in 2009, she wanted to see if she could win Wimbledon, which would remain the only major title she would elude.

The only Grand Slam singles title not on Barty’s resume is the US Open. Only 10 women in history – and only Margaret Court, Billie Jean King, Chris Evert, Martina Navratilova, Steffi Graf, Serena Williams and Maria Sharapova in the Open Era – have been able to win all four Slams.

Could Barty give in to temptation one day? It’s always possible, of course, but she seems like a less likely candidate for a comeback to me.

And I’m not saying it’s because of the conditions at the US Open, although longtime Barty coach Craig Tizzer made some interesting points about it at this year’s Australian Open.

“The US Open really needs to replace the girls ball. It’s a terrible ball for someone like Ash – the ball itself is so light,” he said.

“I had to change her racket just to have some control over the ball. If they keep that ball the same, no one is going to win this tournament like Ash.”

Returning to tennis in 2016, after playing professional cricket for the Brisbane Heat in the Big Bash League’s first women’s league, Barty admitted to missing competition and heads-ups.

Her fiancé, Harry Kissick, is a professional golf trainee, and given Barty’s low single-digit handicap, there is sure to be further speculation that she will one day take up a third professional sport. That is, she once enjoyed “the next stage of life as Ash Barty the human, not Ash Barty the athlete.”

Players rarely retire so young when injuries don’t matter. Jennifer Capriati had well-documented problems off the court, but the initial retirements of Tracey Austin, Martina Hingis and Marion Bartoli in their 20s were mostly due to sick bodies.

Barty’s departure makes you even more thankful for the longevity of the Williams sisters and worried about the short-term future of the WTA Tour.

2020 French Open champion Iga Swiatek is likely to be world number one after the Miami Open, but only if Barty asks to be removed from the rankings. Maria Sakkari, Barbora Kreychikova and Arina Sobolenko are the other current members of the top five, and their achievements have not yet been widely recognized outside of sports.

Naomi Osaka also plays sparingly, but there are plenty of reasons for long-term optimism in the form of teenagers Emma Radukanu, Coco Gauff and Layla Fernandez.

The loss of a player like Barty, who has won 25 of her last 26 tour matches and has been world No. 1 for the past 114 weeks, leaves a gaping hole.

She has become a benchmark for women’s tennis, proving herself with class and inspiring local communities.

And Barty charmed us with the grace of her truly beautiful game.

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