Analysis: Ash Barty’s retirement not really hard to fathom

At first glance, Ash Barty’s retirement from tennis might be hard to fathom.

She is still only 25, after all. And she’s been thriving with a racket in her hands lately: No. 1 in the WTA rankings for 114 consecutive weeks (a streak surpassed only by Steffi Graf, Serena Williams and Martina Navratilova), the champion at two of the past three Grand Slam tournaments, an 11-0 record this season.

So, to some, it seems natural to ask: Why stop now?

Ah, but Barty made clear, both in her announcement via social media on Wednesday and in other things she’s said and done over time, that she learned to measure success and fulfillment in ways that are uncommon — and certainly have little to do with the number beside her name or how many trophies reside in her home.

Listen, for example, to what the Australian said during an interview with The Associated Press in March 2019, back before she had won any of her trio of major singles championships, before she had spent so much as one day ranked inside the Top 10, and three years before telling the world she was ready to stop for good.

“I know if I keep doing things the right way and keep going about things the right way, enjoying the process and the journey, those results will come. If they don’t, it’s not the end of the world,” she said then, earnestness in her voice and, as is often the case, a smile on her face. “And if they do, I can sit back, celebrate and just enjoy them.”

It was believable then. Her latest news is believable now, even if there surely are folks wondering whether this will stick. Tom Brady is only the most recent example of a top athlete who couldn’t stay away, a long list that includes tennis players such as Justine Henin (the only other woman to retire while No. 1) and Kim Clijsters.

Plus, there’s this: Barty already did take a break years ago before returning, but she says the feeling is different this time.

What’s key to remember is Barty does things her way, on her timetable, and for her own reasons, and there is nothing wrong with that, as much as fans of tennis — and other pros, some of whom were shocked, too — would like to see her continue competing.

“I can’t lie,” Williams wrote in a tweet addressed to Barty, “I was sad to read your decision but also happy for your new chapter. Always your fan close up and afar. Sending all my love.”

Barty’s style of play was unique and varied, reliant on a mix of backhand slices and big serves and forehands. In an era when many players will speak quite plainly about not worrying about what is happening on the other side of the net, Barty was as adept at analyzing, dissecting and dismantling an opponent’s game as anyone.

Yet Barty is so self-aware, so focused on what’s best for her, that it makes perfect sense that she would head for the exit at the height of her powers rather than in any state of decline.

“I really respect, and I really think she’s brave, that she has made this decision because, with all the expectations around, I mean, there is not many people who would stop at this point and put their happiness (first),” said Iga Swiatek, who is ranked No. 2. “I think that’s an example, not only for us tennis players or (other) athletes, but every person.”

Barty was a prodigy — if you somehow haven’t seen that picture of her as a kid, proudly holding a prize in her outstretched left hand, do yourself a favor and Google “Barty trophy photo” — who won a Wimbledon junior title at 15 in 2011, left the tour for nearly two years in 2014 because of burnout and the burden of expectations, played pro cricket, and later discussed how that hiatus made her a better player and person.

She always wanted to win Wimbledon, and did last year. She always wanted to win the Australian Open, and did in January.

There were other on-court triumphs, millions of dollars in prize money and endorsements, and icon status at home, something she achieved before becoming the first player from the host nation to win a singles trophy at Melbourne Park in 44 years.

“I don’t have the physical drive, the emotional want and everything it takes to challenge yourself at the very top level any more. I am spent. Physically, I have nothing more to give. That, to me, is success. I’ve given absolutely everything I can to this beautiful sport of tennis and I’m really happy with that,” Barty said Wednesday.

“For me, that is my success. I know that people may not understand it, and I’m OK with that,” she said. “Because I know that for me, Ash Barty the person has so many dreams that she wants to chase after that don’t necessarily involve traveling the world, being away from my family, being away from my home.”

Makes perfect sense.

By Howard Fendrich

AP Tennis Writer