Ashleigh Barty’s announcement Tuesday night that she was retiring at age 25, just weeks after winning the Australian Open, broke through as a mainstream sports story in a way that her tennis career never really did.
With the variety in her game, the cleanliness of her forehand strike and the skidding mendacity of her backhand slice, Barty was a tennis player’s tennis player who had clearly established herself over the last year as the best in the world. But outside of Australia, she was not a classic superstar or box office draw — largely because she didn’t want to be.
Barty’s sudden retirement had a lot of people who don’t follow the sport closely questioning why somebody in the absolute prime of their career, who could have certainly added several more Grand Slam titles to the three she already won, would step away now.
All across sports, we are seeing athletes go to extreme lengths to extend their careers whether it’s Tom Brady’s un-retirement, LeBron James’ desire to be on a team with his son and Roger Federer working as we speak to come back despite a third surgery on his right knee and no guarantee that he will be competitive at the top level.
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But Barty’s announcement, while shocking, should not actually be much of a surprise.
Among all the professional sports in the world, tennis is arguably the most grueling lifestyle. Many of the top players, especially women, are professionals by their mid-teens. To make it big usually requires years of scratching and clawing through minor tournaments and qualifying events into the big ones so that eventually you can get a ranking high enough to pick and choose where you want to play.
Then comes life on the big tour, where you’re away from home for months at a time playing an individual sport, jetting from one country to the next to chase money and trophies with an offseason that last about six weeks. And when you finally get to the top of the game as Barty did, the margins between winning and losing are so small that the process of maniacal work on your game never really ends until you’re just ready to stop.
With nearly $24 million in prize money, millions more in endorsements and the two trophies she coveted most — Wimbledon and the Australian Open — that was enough for a player who loved the sport but not everything that came along with it.
In a sense, Barty was one of the first professional athletes to put a spotlight on mental health when she first walked away from tennis under much different circumstances in 2014. At the time, Barty was just 18 years old and not among the top 100 singles players in the world but returned to Australia and became a professional cricket player. Whether it was burnout or struggling with the pressure to live up to the expectations put on her as a junior Wimbledon champion at age 15, she had a desire to live a more normal life than the one she had experienced up to that point.
Though Barty came back to tennis in 2016, the yearning for normalcy — and home — remained a constant theme. She had little interest in being a celebrity or social media star, preferring to sit in the stands with a beer and watch soccer just like everyone else.
In fact, the well-known GIF of Barty celebrating a goal that circulated on social media in October 2020 occurred during the French Open, which was held in the fall because of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Barty was the defending champion, having won her first major there. But as the tennis world resumed its schedule that year, Barty chose to stay in Australia rather than deal with the massive logistical challenges, quarantines and restrictions of leaving (and then returning) to her country. Simply because of the distance and travel, being an Australian in a global sport has always been a more difficult road. COVID made it exponentially tougher.
When Barty returned to the tour in 2021, some questioned whether the No. 1 ranking Barty earned at the end of 2019 was still legitimate because of the WTA’s pandemic adjustments that kept her on top despite not playing for nearly a full year. In the meantime, Naomi Osaka had won two Grand Slams and others were making meaningful inroads at the highest level.
Barty responded with utter dominance, winning Miami, Stuttgart, Wimbledon and Cincinnati to put a complete stranglehold on the top ranking, all while spending seven consecutive months away from home.
After coming back in the same form to start 2022, winning all 11 matches she played and not dropping a set at the Australian Open, it’s hard to think of an athlete who walked away at such a peak.
But not everyone is driven by setting records, stacking titles or playing as long as their body will allow. As Barty noted in the video announcing her retirement, Wimbledon was her No. 1 career goal and she checked that off the list last year. Then she became the first Aussie woman since 1978 to win her home Grand Slam title.
With all the money she’ll ever need and a Hall of Fame career already secured, Barty decided there was more happiness for her to chase outside of tennis than in it. Wouldn’t we all sign up for that deal if we could?