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  • Christopher Clarey

Circuit Breaker

After a shock retirement at the peak of the world rankings, Ash Barty is comfortable in life outside tennis. By Christopher Clarey, with photographs by Alana Holmberg.
Ashleigh Barty during the final of the Australian Open in Melbourne on January 29, 2022. She beat Danielle Collins of the U.S. for the title.

As the best players in tennis regathered in Melbourne in January for the first Grand Slam tournament of the year, then women’s champion Ashleigh Barty was back among them — but not to defend her title. In one of the most surprising developments in sports in 2022, Barty retired last March at age 25, on top of the women’s rankings and the first Australian in 44 years to win the Australian Open singles title. Her early exit from the tour was all the more striking in a season when Roger Federer retired at age 41 and Serena Williams, now also 41, played what could be her final tournament at the US Open. The leading players of the 21st century have set new benchmarks for enduring excellence, staying in the game long past the ages when previous champions let go. Barty bucked the trend.

Any regrets? “To be honest, I think what has surprised me most is how comfortable I’ve been,” Barty said on a call from Brisbane recently. “I think there was probably a normal fear or uncertainty in not knowing what my life would look like after tennis after being so focused.”

Barty had grown accustomed to the “very structured life” of the tennis circuit. “I was a bit unsure how I would deal with that because I am a person who likes to be organised,” she said. “There was probably a little bit of fear in that, but overall, that hasn’t been an issue, a concern or a worry. What’s been most surprising in a good way is that I’ve slipped quite seamlessly into this life that’s just like everyone else, which is kind of always what I wanted.”

Barty, a self-described “homebody”, married her long-term partner, Garry Kissick, in July, and in early January announced she is pregnant. She has spent considerable time with friends and family since her retirement. But her life is still not quite like everyone else’s. She earned some $35 million in prize money and millions more in endorsements, and has been able to pay off the mortgage on her parents’ homes to express her gratitude for the sacrifices they made to help her become a tennis champion.

Ash Barty.

After retirement, Barty, an excellent recreational golfer, was invited to play a round on the Old Course at St. Andrews, and she extended her stay there to follow her fellow Queenslander Cameron Smith as he won the British Open. Barty, a multisport talent, has ruled out becoming a professional golfer or returning to professional cricket, which she played briefly when she took her first indefinite break from tennis at age 17, because of the mental strain and loneliness of life on tour. She returned to the game 17 months later in 2016 with a new coach, Craig Tyzzer, and went on to win three major singles titles, including Wimbledon in 2021. She spent 121 weeks at No. 1.

She was entrenched in the top spot when she retired, and though Iga Swiatek, an explosive talent from Poland, quickly took over at No. 1 and dominated the season, it was hard not to wonder how Barty’s presence would have changed the equation. “It was a bit of a strange one, I suppose,” Barty said. “But I think that was probably what was least important to me: where I was sitting in the rankings. That was hard for a lot of people to understand.”

How best to sum up why she did retire? “I achieved my dreams,” she said. “Everyone has different dreams and different ways of defining success. But for me, I knew that I gave everything I could, and I was fortunate to live out my ultimate childhood dream, and now it was time for me to explore what else was out there and not be, I suppose, greedy in a sense of keep playing tennis because that’s what I was expected to do, and then you blink, and maybe the other things have passed you by.”

Ash Barty in action.

After retirement, Barty worked on a series of children’s books and her autobiography, “My Dream Time”. She spent the holidays with her family and then made an appearance to launch First Nations Day at the Australian Open. Barty is preparing to start her own foundation this year with a focus on helping youth and an emphasis on sports and education. She also has announced plans to join with Tyzzer and Jason Stoltenberg, another of her former coaches, to start an elite tennis academy. She is eager to mentor teenagers in particular, but not to coach on tour.

Tennis has had no shortage of comebacks: Margaret Court, Björn Borg, Kim Clijsters and Justine Henin all returned to the tour after early retirement, and Court and Clijsters returned and won majors. But though retiring at 25 gives Barty plenty of years to reconsider, she sounds unlikely to do so, even after her comment last March that the door to a comeback “is closed, but it’s not padlocked”. “The more time I’ve had to sit and think and absorb [the year], I think it is never in the sense of me competing professionally again,” she said. “But I’ll never not be involved in the sport. So I think that’s where I’ll always get my tennis fix, that taste of the sport that gave me so much.”

© The New York Times

This is an extract from an article that appears in print in our seventh edition, Page 66 of Winning Magazine. Subscribe to Winning Magazine today.


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