Ash Barty’s retirement from tennis on Wednesday at just 25 and on top the world was a bombshell announcement.
Not only is she the reigning singles champion of two of the four Grand Slams (the most prestigious tournaments in the sport), she had also finished atop the world rankings in each of the past three years. It has been an impressive period of dominance in a ultra-tight field of elite competitors.
In an era when rivals are increasingly playing on well into their 30s – six players of the other players in the top 10 are older than Barty – her decision to retire after the most successful 12-month period of her career is shocking to say the least .
But this is Ash Barty. She has always followed a unique path. Her retirement announcement di lei was typical – no glitz and glamor, no trophies or formal presentations. Just Barty, sitting in a chair, talking to her former doubles partner and good friend Casey Dellacqua.
“There’s no right way, there’s no wrong way, it’s just my way,” Barty said.
If anything sums up the Australian legend perfectly, it’s that one sentence.
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Barty was four years old when she picked up an old squash racquet and began to smack balls against a garage walls for hours upon hours.
Her father Robert – a Ngaragu man who was an amateur golfing champion back in the 1980s – soon made a call to the local tennis coach, West Brisbane Tennis Centre’s Jim Joyce.
As Robert once told ABC Radio, Joyce “said ‘we don’t take them until they are eight.’
“We went down and he threw her a ball and she whacked it over his head. She kept doing that until he said ‘you can come back next week’. He said she had it written all over her face di lei. “
On those four courts in Queensland’s capital, a pint-size Barty had to use her brain far more than brawn to best her opponents. When she was nine, she was regularly facing 15 year old boys. When she was 15, her opponents di lei were adults.
Still far from the biggest player on tour, Barty carried the same canny, creative game through to her world-beating recent campaigns. She serves like someone a foot taller, opponents and commentators agree. And it’s her backhand slice di lei – a shot not regularly used in the women’s game – that has so often been integral to her success di lei.
Barty has never loved the spotlight that comes with professional tennis – especially for the best of the best. She had traveled the world since she was a young teenager, spending countless hours on the training court obsessing over her game di lei – but without the smile of that four-year-old with a beaten up squash racquet.
In one calendar year playing in the juniors, she reportedly spent just 27 days at home. She was homesick, increasingly exhausted and depressed. She would regularly call her parents di lei while in tears, stuck in a hotel room on the other side of the world.
In 2011 she won Wimbledon Juniors. She came home, tried to push through the unhappiness and the difficulties she was facing. She had moved from Ipswich in Queensland down to Melbourne to continue her career.
Just a year after that move, in 2014, she walked away. She was just 16.
Her father said: “When she decided to finish tennis, we knew she was struggling, but we didn’t realize how much she didn’t like the attention and the limelight. We said ‘OK you have got to be happy darl, we are here to support you through the whole process’. “
Evonne Goolagong Cawley, the legendary Australian tennis figure who became Barty’s mentor, texted her a message of support – and a suggestion to go fishing.
“Hey darl. Good decision. Go and wet a line. “
Barty went home, went fishing. She went back to West Brisbane Tennis Center and – far from the limelight – helped Jim Joyce coach a bunch of kids.
In the 18 months away from the sport, Barty – encouraged by her father – saw a therapist and took medication for depression.
She also took up cricket, a sport she had never played before.
Brisbane Heat coach Andy Richards had been told Barty had joked about giving cricket a shot. A coffee and a casual hit in the nets was all it took for Richards to recognize she was a special talent. He immediately made Barty a member of that team in the inaugural Women’s Big Bash competition.
The team sport offered her a sense of normality she had never had. She was surrounded by teammates her age di lei. They would go out for beers after a game. In the years afterwards, Barty would play cricket with her tennis coaching team in the warm-up rooms ahead of tennis matches.
“I thought she would never go back to tennis, I thought that was it,” Robert Barty said.
It was Dellacqua who convinced Barty to pick up the racquet again, asking her good friend to hit some balls with her as Dellacqua battled back from injury. The spark was reignited.
In June 2016, Barty began her comeback. But everything was different. She said today: “there was a perspective shift in me in the second phase of my career that my happiness wasn’t dependent on the results. And success for me is knowing that I’ve given absolutely everything I can, I’m fulfilled, I’m happy … “
Unranked, Barty slogged her way through the lower-level of the tennis world, those low-paying, grueling affairs frequented by journeymen and teen prospects alike. It didn’t take long for her to rise to the top. Within six months she was 325th in the world. By 2019 she was a French Open winner and the world number two. She would finish the year the top-ranked woman in the world – the same positioned she’s finished each calendar year since then.
Last year she achieved her biggest career goal with victory at Wimbledon. This year she backed it up with victory in her home Grand Slam. Her first coach of hers, Joyce, was in the stands on both occasions.
It’s a reflection of the person she is. Humble, down to earth, still the same person who spent her spare time hitting balls with kids at that small tennis center in an industrial zone in Brisbane.
Barty gave us so many brilliant moments. The press conferences – not least of them answering questions from her good mate Dellacqua. The celebratory beer as she fronted the television cameras after hoisting the Australian Open. The ‘Bartymite’ collaboration with Vegemite.
She was always herself, and always unique.
Today’s announcement was the same.