Why Ashleigh Barty is a rarity in a rare set
For Ashleigh Barty, left-field choices were no big deal
For Ashleigh Barty, left-field choices were no big deal. They felt, as she says, right. In 2014, she took a hiatus from professional tennis to play in the premier women’s T20 cricket league in Australia — not by pulling rank but purely because she was good enough. And yesterday, she walked away from professional tennis at an unthinkable age of 25 years, ranked No 1 and at the peak of her game. The affable Australian has finished the past three years as the top player in the world, a rare feat in this era of women’s tennis, which has resembled a carousel over the past decade. Her decision to walk away is even rarer.
Since the Women’s Tennis Association (WTA) rankings were introduced in 1975, only 14 players have finished the year ranked one in singles. Four of these 14 are still active on the circuit. Of the remaining 10, Barty is the youngest to retire, bringing back memories of male tennis player Bjorn Borg, who won a lot more and retired at the age of 26 while at his peak. In comparison, the average age of retirement for the other nine women number one’s was 33 years.
Barty is also the only woman in this set to retire while still the top rank. On average, the remaining 10 players played singles for eight years from the last time they finished atop the year-end rankings. In terms of this gap, the next closest is Steffi Graf, who was 27 the last time she finished atop the year-end rankings and was 30 when she retired. To be sure, Justine Henin-Hardenne announced her retirement in 2008 as a 26-year-old when she was still ranked number one , but returned to tennis in 2010 before finally calling it a day in 2011.
From cricket to tennis
Barty, like many on the tennis tour, started young. She began her professional career in 2010, aged just 14, and featured in her first WTA tour match in 2012. In 2015, she left professional tennis to play cricket at the top level in Australia. Back then, she was ranked outside the top 200 in singles. Following her return to professional tennis in 2016, though, she made a rapid ascent to the top, becoming the world number one in 2019, following her French Open triumph.
Among Grand Slams, she added Wimbledon in 2021 and signs off with a memorable victory in the 2022 Australian Open. What is more remarkable though is her stay at the top, which has been undisputed over the past three years. She has also enjoyed a stellar doubles career, where she made three Grand Slam finals and won the Birmingham Classic WTA title with fellow Australian Casey Dellacqua. Her departure leaves a void at the top, with several contenders.
In her brief, yet significant, reign at the top, Barty’s rivalries were scattered. Her most significant one was with Czech tennis player Petra Kvitova, whom she has played 10 times, with each winning five apiece. She has also played the up-and-coming Russian Aryna Sabalenka eight times, again winning half the matches. What is notable is her dominance against those who are currently ranked among the top 10, including Iga Swiatek, Maria Sakkari, Karolina Pliskova and Garbine Murugaza.
Of the 18 players who have finished in the top 10 in the year-end singles rankings in the last three years, Barty has a winning record against 11 of them, and parity with another four. The three against whom she has a losing record are Elina Svitolina (3-5), Simona Halep (1-3) and Simona Halep (0-2).
In her tearful retirement announcement, Barty spoke about fatigue, saying she was completely spent and had nothing more to offer physically. Professional tennis is gruelling and maintaining longevity is daunting. But other than two years in her 11 years on the tour, the workload that Barty maintained wasn’t unusual. She played 278 singles matches in all. By comparison, Serena Williams, renowned for her longevity and prolonged dominance of women’s tennis, played 423 matches in her first 11 years on tour. But during this period, the maximum number of matches that Williams played in a year was 61, which Barty exceeded in both 2018 and 2019.
Even as Barty walks away from the sport, a return is not beyond the realm of imagination. Past greats such as Kim Clijsters and Martina Hingis have made a successful return following time away from the sport. That would be quintessential Barty — unafraid to make left field choices when she felt it was right for her.
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