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Ash Barty has always done things her own way.
The shock retirement of the world number one women’s tennis player at the age of 25 was pure Barty in action.
The razzmatazz of a major media conference with jostling journalists and clicking camera shutters was not for her. When basketball superstar LeBron James switched teams in 2010, a live television special entitled The Decision ran for 75 minutes and extracted as much publicity as possible beforehand.
In contrast, Barty called time on her tennis career in a six-minute Instagram video post via a one-on-one conversation with her close friend and former doubles partner Casey Dellacqua. The inevitable big media conference was scheduled for the following day, but Barty made sure she set the agenda and, at least initially, controlled the narrative.
A multi-talented athlete and restless spirit
Her idiosyncratic history in sport has always involved keeping those outside her tight inner circle off balance. In 2014, Barty took a break from the game and played cricket with some success before returning to tennis two years later.
The unexpected news of her permanent retirement is consistent with the restless spirit of a multi-talented athlete (she is also a very accomplished golfer) who has always looked far beyond the tennis court’s baseline.
It’s not even been two months since I wrote about Barty riding the crest of a wave after victory in the Australian Open women’s singles final.
The other main subject of the article was Nick Kyrgios, who with Thanasi Kokkinakis had won the men’s doubles title.
Both Barty and Kyrgios are far from being cookie-cutter pro tennis players, but they’re vastly different in style. Kyrgios, like Barty, has proclaimed that tennis isn’t his life. But his way of dealing with the world is not to train too hard and to stage a show many people will watch because of his brash unpredictability.
Barty, on the other hand, projects her ordinariness. She drew attention to her play and her team, not her personal image. Barty reached the pinnacle of the sport, including winning three singles Grand Slam titles. Kyrgios, though, who has often foreshadowed his own retirement, has to a degree squandered his extravagant talent.
In public esteem ranking, Kyrgios is a polarising figure, whereas Barty is astonishingly well regarded. Her combination of success and humility means her departure from tennis has made many fans genuinely sad.
Typically, she has suggested a new, though as yet undeclared, game plan that will keep her in the public eye.
What next for the Barty party?
In her social media retirement discussion with Dellacqua, Barty said she had given all she could as an elite tennis player, and was “spent”.
But this seemed to be more than simple exhaustion. Having climbed to the summit of the sport at Wimbledon last year, she experienced the familiar feeling of the ultra-successful – that it was somehow not enough. We could almost hear the strains of the famous lament in the 1960s Peggy Lee hit (covered by PJ Harvey and many others), Is That All There Is?
The home win at Melbourne Park seemed to convince Barty she didn’t want just to “keep dancing”, as the song goes. Instead of getting on the plane to the US for Indian Wells and going into intense preparation for the French Open and following tournaments, it was time to enter a new phase of life.
Tennis has given Barty wealth, influence and a global profile beyond the imagination of most late millennials. She has multiple options that will no doubt soon be exercised. As a Ngaragu woman who is the national Indigenous tennis ambassador for Tennis Australia, it’s probable she will remain deeply committed to First Nations causes.
There might be the familiar move into media commentary. No doubt many organisations, large and small, will beat a path to her door. Having the face of Barty in the service of a company or campaign would be a highly valuable asset.
But this very singular woman wants to spend more time at home in southeast Queensland, and her recent engagement indicates that at some point there will be a wedding to organise.
Barty’s self-effacing, open manner gives many a sense they somehow know her personally, and they can “read” her intentions and mind.
This is an attractive illusion. Right to the end of her tennis career, she kept the world at bay with a disarming smile and an engaging disposition.
Will there be another tennis comeback for Barty? Perhaps. There have been few sporting champions as adept at keeping the curious guessing. But we can be sure that any choice will be strictly on her terms.
David Rowe is Emeritus Professor of Cultural Research, Institute for Culture and Society, Western Sydney University.