As the best players in tennis regather in Melbourne, Australia, in January for the first Grand Slam tournament of the year, reigning women’s champion Ashleigh Barty will be back among them – but not to defend her title.
In one of the most surprising developments in sports in 2022, Barty retired in March at the age of 25, on top of the women’s rankings and on top of her sun-drenched part of the world after becoming 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 nine months later?
“To be honest, I think what has surprised me most is how comfortable I’ve been,” Barty said by phone from Brisbane last week. “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 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 nearly $24 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. 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 number one.
She was entrenched in the top spot when she retired, and though Iga Swiatek, an explosive talent from Poland, quickly took over at number one 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.”
After retirement, Barty worked on a series of children’s books and her autobiography, My Dream Time, which has been published in Australia and will be released elsewhere shortly.
She said the process of writing her memoir was “therapeutic.”
“A way to close a chapter on some really tough moments and then to revisit and recelebrate some of the most amazing moments,” she said. “So it was certainly a big year in that sense. There was a lot happening off the court, and I’m pretty tired at the end of the year now, and it’s scary to think that typically, I’d be in the middle of a tennis preseason getting ready for an Australian summer that’s just around the corner.”
Barty will spend the holidays with her family and then make appearances for her sponsors at the Australian Open, which begins on January 16th.
She is preparing to start her own foundation in 2023 with a focus on helping Australian 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 in Australia. She is eager to mentor teenagers in particular but not to coach on tour.
Tennis has had no shortage of comebacks: Margaret Court, Bjorn 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 in 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 this 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.” – This article originally appeared in The New York Times.