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TENNIS

Game, set and match – What’s next for Ash Barty after shock retirement?

Game, set and match – What’s next for Ash Barty after shock retirement?
Ash Barty with the Daphne Akhurst Memorial Cup after defeating Danielle Collins in the Australian Open final at Melbourne Park on 29 January 2022. (Photo: EPA-EFE / Dave Hunt)

The world number one sent shock waves through tennis when she retired. But what is in store for the athlete who has always said that tennis is not her life?

Ash Barty has always done things her own way. The shock retirement of the world number one women’s tennis player at the age of 25 was pure Barty in action.

The razzmatazz of a major media conference with jostling journalists and clicking camera shutters was not for her. When basketball superstar LeBron James switched teams in 2010, a live television special entitled The Decision ran for 75 minutes and extracted as much publicity as possible beforehand.

In contrast, Barty called time on her tennis career in a six-minute Instagram video post via a one-on-one conversation with her close friend and former doubles partner Casey Dellacqua.

The inevitable big media conference was scheduled for the next day, but Barty made sure she set the agenda and, at least initially, controlled the narrative.

Multitalented and a restless spirit

Her idiosyncratic history in sport has always involved keeping those outside her tight inner circle off balance. In 2014, Barty took a break from the game and played cricket with some success before returning to tennis two years later.

The unexpected news of her permanent retirement is consistent with the restless spirit of a multi-talented athlete (she is also a very accomplished golfer) who has always looked far beyond the tennis court’s baseline.

It’s not even been two months since I wrote about Barty riding the crest of a wave after victory in the Australian Open women’s singles final.

The other main subject of the article was Nick Kyrgios, who with Thanasi Kokkinakis had won the men’s doubles title.

Both Barty and Kyrgios are far from being cookie-cutter pro tennis players, but they’re vastly different in style. Kyrgios, like Barty, has proclaimed that tennis isn’t his life. But his way of dealing with the world is not to train too hard and to stage a show many people will watch because of his brash unpredictability.

Barty, on the other hand, projects her ordinariness. She drew attention to her play and her team, not her personal image. Barty reached the pinnacle of the sport, including winning three singles Grand Slam titles. Kyrgios, though, who has often foreshadowed his own retirement, has to a degree squandered his extravagant talent.

In public esteem ranking, Kyrgios is a polarising figure, whereas Barty is astonishingly well regarded.

Her combination of success and humility means her departure from tennis has made many fans genuinely sad.

Typically, she has suggested a new, though as yet undeclared, game plan that will keep her in the public eye.

In her social media retirement discussion with Dellacqua, Barty said that she had given all she could as an elite tennis player, and was “spent”.

But this seemed to be more than simple exhaustion. Having climbed to the summit of the sport at Wimbledon last year, she experienced the familiar feeling of the ultra-successful – that it was somehow not enough.

We could almost hear the strains of the famous lament in the 1960s Peggy Lee hit (covered by PJ Harvey and many others), Is That All There Is?

The home win at Melbourne Park seemed to convince Barty she didn’t want just to “keep dancing”, as the song goes. Instead of getting on the plane to the US for Indian Wells and going into intense preparation for the French Open and subsequent tournaments, it was time to enter a new phase of life.

Tennis has given Barty wealth, influence and a global profile beyond the imagination of most late millennials. She has multiple options that will no doubt soon be exercised. As a Ngaragu woman who is the national indigenous tennis ambassador for Tennis Australia, it’s probable she will remain deeply committed to First Nations causes.

There might be the familiar move into media commentary. No doubt many organisations, large and small, will beat a path to her door. Having the face of Barty in the service of a company or campaign would be a highly valuable asset.

But this very singular woman wants to spend more time at home in southeast Queensland, and her recent engagement indicates that at some point there will be a wedding to organise.

Barty’s self-effacing, open manner gives many a sense they somehow know her personally, and they can “read” her intentions and mind.

This is an attractive illusion. Right to the end of her tennis career, she kept the world at bay with a disarming smile and an engaging disposition.

Will there be another tennis comeback for Barty? Perhaps. There have been few sporting champions as adept at keeping the curious guessing. But we can be sure that any choice will be strictly on her terms. DM168

This article was first published by The Conversation.

David Rowe is an Emeritus Professor of Cultural Research, Institute for Culture and Society, at Western Sydney University.

Ash Barty of Australia plays a shot during the Women’s singles final against Danielle Collins of the USA at the Australian Open grand slam tennis tournament at Melbourne Park in Melbourne, Australia, on 29 January 2022. (Photo: EPA-EFE /J OEL CARRETT AUSTRALIA AND NEW ZEALAND OUT)

THE BEST OF BARTY

  • Three Grand Slam titles: French Open 2019, Wimbledon 2021, Australian Open 2022.
  • Began playing tennis at the age of five when parents Robert and Josie introduced her to the sport.
  • Started on the International Tennis Federation (ITF) circuit in Australia in 2010. She played her first Women’s Tennis Association (WTA) qualifying event at the US Open a year later.
  • Won four singles titles and two doubles titles on the ITF circuit in 2012.
  • Claimed one WTA doubles title and reached three Grand Slam doubles finals with fellow Australian Casey Dellacqua in 2013 (Australian Open, Wimbledon and US Open).
  • After winning another WTA doubles title in 2014, Barty took a break from tennis after the US Open and had a successful stint with the Brisbane Heat cricket team in the Women’s Big Bash League, before returning to tennis in 2016.
  • Broke into the top 20 in 2017, clinching her first WTA singles title at Kuala Lumpur as a qualifier. She reached two more singles finals before becoming Australia’s No 1.
  • Won her second and third WTA singles titles in 2018 to finish the year ranked 15th in the world.
  • Sealed her first title of 2019 at Miami in March before clinching her maiden Grand Slam at the French Open, beating Czech Markéta Vondroušová in the final to become the first Australian woman player in 46 years to triumph at Roland Garros.
  • She rose to world No 1 in June 2019 and led Australia to their first Fed Cup final since 1993, where they lost to France.
  • Started as the top-ranked player in 2020. Won her eighth WTA singles title at Adelaide and reached the semifinals of the Australian Open.
  • Did not play in any Grand Slams in 2020 because of the Covid-19 pandemic. At the Australian Open in 2021, she lost in the quarterfinals. Retired from her second-round match at the French Open because of a hip injury.
  • Defeated Karolína Plíšková in her first Wimbledon final in 2021 to win her second Grand Slam title.
  • Finished 2021 as the world No 1 for a third consecutive year, winning a Tour-leading five titles.
  • Beat Danielle Collins in the 2022 Australian Open final to win her third Grand Slam title. DM168

This story first appeared in our weekly Daily Maverick 168 newspaper which is available for R25 at Pick n Pay, Exclusive Books and airport bookstores. For your nearest stockist, please click here.

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