Ash Barty has just retired from tennis in a most unconventional way. She is 25. She is the world #1, a spot she has held for over a year. She has won three majors, one on each surface, two of them in the last year.
Barty has never had a typical career arc. She took a break from professional tennis in late 2014 and took up cricket the following year, a fact mentioned practically without fail by broadcasters during her matches. During earlier waves of the COVID-19 pandemic, Barty sat out of some big tournaments — the 2020 U.S. Open, the 2021 WTA Finals. Due to a slow physical recovery after this year’s Australian Open, she opted out of the Sunshine Double despite being the defending champion in Miami.
Barty’s game wasn’t typical, either. At a mere five feet and five inches, she developed one of the best serves in the world, utterly mastering the art of disguised spot serving. Her backhand slice was the most potent on tour, giving opponents fits. Her forehand was a heavy comet she could direct to any spot on the court.
She was simply unstoppable at her best. Iga Świątek has been on the rise recently, winning Indian Wells to ascend to the #2 spot in the rankings. Barty beat her in their only two matches, both played in the last year, without dropping a set.
So, from a tennis standpoint, the timing of Barty’s retirement is bizarre. She is leaving potentially dozens of big titles on the table.
Barty knows all this. Having cathartically achieved her childhood dream of winning Wimbledon, she started to consider retirement as early as last year. The Australian Open, she said, then acted as the last piece in the mosaic of her goals in tennis. She has checked all the boxes she set out to.
In the era of the GOATs, aspirations for towering major title counts and a place among the biggest legends in tennis history have become almost commonplace. Expected. With some exceptions, Serena Williams, Roger Federer, Novak Djokovic, and Rafael Nadal have been more or less perpetually dedicated to tennis. Major titles #1 through #19 didn’t deter their motivations enough to snuff out a burning desire for #20. You get the sense that the four of them will hang up their rackets when they feel they have accomplished everything they possibly could have, not before.
This attitude is incredible, not normal. Looking at the other 99.9% of players, even those who are also major winners, reveals that motivation is a complex, varying pull for those on tour. Not everyone aspires to be the best of all time. Not everyone even aspires to play for as long as they can. Tennis is demanding, but it’s also just tennis — when most players retire, they are not yet at the halfway point of their lives.
Barty has seemed to grasp this from the very beginning of her career. The spirit is evident from the way she carries herself to the way she plays — she plays tennis with force and purpose, but not with the frantic energy you see from Nadal, not that it’s held Barty back. She obviously wants to win, but it’s not the end of the world if she doesn’t. She strikes me as someone who could lose a close match and chat about it rationally over coffee with her team rather than dealing with it by throwing her tennis bag in a fit of competitive rage. Though the timing of Barty’s announcement is shocking, the substance of it makes some sense.
It will take some time for Barty’s absence to truly sink in. That the winner of the Australian Open without dropping a set, the reigning Wimbledon champion, and the longtime world #1 is no longer active on tour is not a thing that can be immediately digested. It might not truly hit until the clay season — we already knew Barty wasn’t playing Miami — but there will come a tournament, maybe one Świątek wins easily, provoking us to ask who can stop her, when the tennis world will collectively feel the absence of Barty’s tennis.
There is plenty of space for a comeback if Barty chooses to pursue one. Maybe she will feel the pull of tennis again when Wimbledon takes place without its defending champion, or when the Aussie crowd has to pick a new favorite. Maybe it will be bearable when she misses tennis, or maybe she won’t miss tennis much at all. I think Barty has considered all these possibilities and is fine with all of them, and therein lies the sense of her decision. I would wish her luck if she needed it.