The Barty, it would seem, is over.
Ash Barty – the longtime world No. 1, holder of three Slam titles and beloved Aussie icon – has retired, at just 25. Ash – we were only just getting to know you. And the one thing that always stood out about you on a tennis court or off a court was just how unique you were.
After all, how many WTA stars (except Evonne Goolagong) are of aboriginal heritage? How many young players fled the pressure of tennis by retiring at age 19 to start a career in cricket, only to unretire and once again endure the relentless grind of the grueling WTA circuit? How many tennis players, while isolating due to COVID, went out and won a golf tournament? And, by the way, during the last 44 years, how many Aussies won the Australian Open?
In modern tennis, superstars so often relish the limelight. And as Barty’s fame surged, there were billboards featuring her all over Melbourne. But her response was blunt. “My face is everywhere,” she quipped. “I’m a bit sick of it, to be honest.”
In our diva-friendly sport, Barty was humble, low-key, no fuss. Red carpets didn’t attract her. Neither did fashion runways or urban chic galas or Netflix docudramas. Ash was the sport’s anti-celebrity celebrity. Her thing was a certain girl-next-door ordinariness. Her garment of choice was a faded T-shirt. But she was quick to remind us, “I drive a Jaguar. it’s not a shit car, I promise you.”
Along with Goolagong and Kim Clijsters, Barty was the kindest superstar to emerge in the Darwinian “I ain’t here to win any friends” world of women’s tennis. Upon her shocking retirement, there was an outpouring of love.
Petra Kvitova said, “you are showing your true class leaving tennis in this beautiful way. I am so happy I could share the court with you. Tennis will never be the same without you! I admire you as a player and a person.” Shelby Rogers added, “What a legend. Incredible inspiration on and off the court. One of the best human beings I’ve ever met. Our number 1!”
Andy Murray was the most succinct, saying, “Happy for Ash. Gutted for tennis. What a player.” Simona Halep was the most eloquent: “Ash, what can I say, you know I have tears, right? My friend, I will miss you on tour. You were different, and special, and we shared some amazing moments. What’s next for you? Grand Slam champion in golf?! Be happy and enjoy your life to the max.”
Ash always surprised tennis lovers to the max. Her first Slam title came in doubles, with American Coco Vandeweghe, at the US Open. The first of her Slams came on clay in Paris. She soon became the first WTA player not from Europe or the USA to become No. 1.
On court she had the anticipation and game management of Novak Djokovic, the “every point is a war” fighting spirit of Nadal and a grace, athleticism, backhand and a Swiss army knife variety suggestive of Federer.
As small (just 5’ 5”) and sweet as she was off-court, on court she was a giant, a fierce competitor who denied any rhythm to her foes. Pam Shriver noted that, inch-for-inch, she was the best server on the circuit. Her unpredictable, kill-shot forehand was a merciless weapon. Like many other Aussies, her volleys were lethal. Her technique was right out of a textbook. But it was her singular backhand that made her seem like such an adept surgeon. She’d blast two-handed winners or cut you up and run you down with a slice that no one else could unleash.
She was patient. Then she went to your weakness to dismantle you. Often it wasn’t pretty.
Then, after yet another win, she’d smile, and often spoke in the third person: “We were just trying to follow the game plan,” or, “We just trying to do our best.”
Justine Henin is the only other WTA player to retire as No. 1. Other great stars have retired early – Martina Hingis, Kim Clijsters and Marion Bartoli. But no other tennis retirement has so rattled the game since Bjorn Borg, 26, took off his headband in 1983.
Now we wonder how much impact the recent surge of awareness about self-care and mental wellness had. Would Ash still be playing if enduring the COVID crisis hadn’t been so difficult for a pro who was a self-confessed homebody? Will Pole Iga Swiatek soon rise to No. 1? And, dare we ask, will Ash consider doing a “Brady flip” and consider gracing the game again?
One of Barty’s great skills was shrugging off adversity. After it took her 50 hours to emerge out of her COVID isolation in Brisbane and reach Miami, she just chuckled. During all the bushfires that struck her homeland, she said, “Tennis is just a game. Honestly,there are so many bigger things going on in Australia right
now. I don’t think anyone could care less if an Aussie wins.”
After she suffered a crushing 2020 Australian Open loss to Sofia Kenin, Ash came into her press conference holding her tiny niece, Olivia. When asked if Olivia had given her any comforting advice after her defeat Ash touched her inner compass which so often his true. Without a hint of remorse, she said it all seamlessly: “Perspective is a beautiful thing. Life is a beautiful thing. Olivia brought a smile to my face as soon as I came off the court. I got to give her a hug. It’s all good.”
And Ash’s brief but remarkable ten years on the circuit have been all good. Few others have so entertained us, taught us so much and given us so much pleasure. It was one heck of a Barty.