Ash Barty redefined what sporting success looks like – as quality, not quantity | Ash Barty

There is a photo of Ash Barty that never seems to get old. A six-year-old on a rain-soaked tennis court. Racket in one hand, junior trophy in the other. Familiar dimpled grin under a well-worn Nike cap. It is miniature Barty, a small kid with big stars in her eyes. That picture was taken in 2002 – 20 years before she would leave that tennis court for good, with all of those big things realized.

And perhaps there should have been even more. After Barty won the Australian Open in January, all the questions were around not whether she would win another grand slam, but how many she would win. That the answer is now and will for ever be zero feels incomprehensible. She is a player at her peak – literally at the top of the rankings. She has stood there for the best part of three years and remains unchallenged.

But then there is that other part of Barty. The person, not the player. Who has always acted on her own terms and refuses to be defined by the sport she happens to be absurdly good at. Who retired once before when it didn’t feel right and returned when it did. In this sense, her latest bombshell is peculiarly refreshing.

Barty is ambitious, but that ambition has always been tempered with perspective. She knew what she wanted and was content once it was achieved. As she said on Wednesday, that thing was Wimbledon. It was “the one true dream that I wanted in tennis”. Last year, after she did it, something inside her shifted.

The Australian Open was unfinished business, so she made that happen too. Then she was spent, physically and mentally, and ready to retire on a high. Athletes across all sports speak about going out on top. Often it entails a requisite number of trophies, awards or other tangible measures of accomplishment.

Barty has that, too – more than most players could ever imagine. Yet she is not a record-chaser. Everything she has said and done suggests that there will never be regrets or what-ifs. That she is not interested in the history books.

She will be apart of them anyway. Because in making this stunning, staggering decision, Barty has reframed the definition of success. She has told all the statisticians that it can be calculated in quality instead of quantity, and that the quality does not always have to be experienced in the form of titles. That moments can make careers.

Sometimes, of course, the moments and the titles collide. When she won Wimbledon, it was 50 years after Evonne Goolagong Cawley did so, while wearing a replica of her mentor’s outfit from half a century ago. After she reigned at Melbourne Park, she took her trophy to Uluru and played tennis on the red dirt with Indigenous kids who are just like she was in that childhood photo.

She has told us on many occasions that she knows and cherishes her roots. In 2014, when tennis yanked her away from those roots before she was ready, she retired at 18. She went home to Australia, and played cricket in the Women’s Big Bash League and a heap of golf, a detour that ultimately restored the hunger she had lost.

The second coming was guided by a careful blueprint to ensure such burnout did not occur again. Her partner and family traveled everywhere she went, part of her ubiquitous “team”. She picked her tournaments, and in between retreated to Queensland to recalibrate.

The result on the court was an inexorable rise from outside the Top 200 to world No 1 and a French Open title. It showed itself in a bewitching all-court game and a composition rarely matched by her peers.

And in an era blighted by on-court misbehavior and off-court controversy, Barty also gave tennis the wholesome, humble character it so urgently needed. Humility trumped hype, and modesty made her a mate of most on the tour.

She felt like a friend to the fans, too. They had traveled with her through her psychological struggles to find her place within the bizarre machinations of a sport driven by big money and big personalities.

Even those indifferent to sport had a reason to watch. “Barty Party” became a cliche, but it also required no explanation because they were at the soiree too, with the most personable sports star who relished winning in the right way.

That is partly the enigma of Barty, who is endearingly predictable in so much of what she says and does but also keeps her cards close to her chest. Not a soul outside her inner circle saw this coming.

On Wednesday she told her good friend and former doubles partner Casey Dellacqua this was the first time she had said the word “retiring” out loud.

“And it’s hard to say,” she said. “But I’m so happy, and I’m so ready, and I just know at the moment, in my heart, for me as a person, this is right … I’ll never stop loving tennis. It’ll always be a massive part of my life. But now I think it’s important that I get to enjoy the next phase of my life as Ash Barty the person, not as Ash Barty the athlete.”

Even since those early days, when miniature Barty banged balls against her family’s garage wall in Ipswich and stood grinning with her trophy, she has somehow managed to be both.

Leave a Comment