One of the cool things on the really long list of cool things about Ash Barty is that she frequently rejects the expectations that the tennis world places at her doorstep.
Announcing her retirement last night from her current position as world number one, she seemed happy and at ease. Sure, there were a few quivers, a few signs of emotion here and there but generally speaking, she seemed so unbelievably sure of her decision, her words offering us no sign of any final doubts.
Indeed, in all of the immediate chaos of the announcement, only the person breaking the news remained calm, so obviously certain that this was the right call, that nobody could ever dare to question her further. This was retirement the Ash Barty way, with a smile and nod of the head and a knowing glint of the eye that told us that she knew this made sense.
At the top level, tennis demands and it keeps on doing so, throwing tantrums if it doesn’t get its way. Of its best players, it requires constant presence and intense commitment and damn all else. This is it and it’s where you’ll need to be. “Nothing else matters,” it’ll scream. “This is the be all and end all.”
And it will be that, it absolutely will be all of that, just as long as you let it be. For Ash Barty, she never really wanted to let it be for long. She wanted it to be her everything only periodically and it was to her absolute credit that she wrestled and fought for a balance that worked for her and made it happen, all the while refusing to obsess over the sport that she went on to dominate.
She took lengthy breaks. Spent time at home with friends and family. Retired once before and came back for just a little bit more. She held back from dedicating every possible waking moment to tennis and in doing so, reminded us frequently that it’s OK to have doubts about our choices, our careers, our lives, and that we don’t need to chase the grind and drag ourselves down trying to reach for things if we’re not even really sure that we truly want them. Barty did as only Barty could and was absolutely brilliant while doing it.
And she won! My god, did she win! A French Open trophy, a Wimbledon title and an Australian Open triumph scattered themselves across her career, a testament to just how good her variety-driven brand of tennis could be. She confused opponents, leaving them clueless and guessing and questioning. She inflicted the struggle of uncertainty on all who played her and rode up the rankings to #1 in the world over the shoulders of players who hit harder than her. Barty never needed all-power play, she just needed an array of difference which she could then weaponise as her own. She was difficult and she was awkward and this was represented best by watching her rivals fall before her.
Watching Barty engineer all of this sparkle for herself was fascinating but what’s more is that she did it while refusing to compromise all else to do so. Of course there were those unhappy about this, those who questioned her motivation and her drive and her personality and her tennis. Many thought her as undeserving if she didn’t see this as her whole world.
The best part though? She just didn’t seem to care. In the face of people asking for more, she kept offering only what she wanted and when she did give just a little bit, she often found herself as the last one left standing at trophy ceremonies.
In the end, perhaps that was why she was as good as she was, because she wasn’t utterly desperate for everything to fall into place for her. She was willing to wait and, yes, work for things, but not to the detriment of her own personal happiness. She spoke of achieving her dreams in this brief retirement interview but you also got the sense that if she had ultimately fallen short of those aspirations, she would have been alright with that as well.
And when you’re consistently at peace with yourself regardless of the outcome, it becomes near impossible to lose.
At 25, Barty is in what most would consider to be her prime. Any future potential she had in tennis will now become a top tier “what if?” discussion to be chewed over in the days, weeks, months and years to come.
Barty won’t be losing sleep over that though. She’ll be turning her attention to whatever she likes now that she’s closed this second tennis-playing chapter of her life. Barring another change of heart somewhere down the line, you really do feel like this really is probably it for her in our sport. And that’s fine. Sure, it’s sad for us but we don’t really matter because it’s relaxation for her, it’s fulfilment for her, it’s wanting something else for her and that is all that truly matters.
As much as this is a time of much shock and surprise and some tears as well, it’s also a point to celebrate an athlete realising that they no longer feel the need to pursue this messiness anymore. One of the most important traits of Ash Barty’s playing career is that it perfectly articulates to us all – even the most ardent of fans of this big-little sport – that there’s much more to life than tennis.