As ever, Andy Murray got it right about Ash Barty’s shock retirement from tennis at the peak of her career. “Happy for @ashbarty, gutted for tennis. What a player,” the Scot tweeted. The Australian, 25, had established herself as the dominant force in women’s tennis by winning Wimbledon and the Australian Open and spending 114 consecutive weeks as world No 1. She could have won the calendar Grand Slam this year.
Instead, her bombshell announcement leaves a big hole in the women’s game – and a vacancy for the best player in the world where Emma Raducanu, Iga Swiatek and Cori Gauff will be among the candidates. The sport needs their star quality to rise to the top with Maria Sharapova long gone and Serena Williams out since pulling out of the first round of Wimbledon with an ankle injury.
The American superstar, who turns 41 in September, might try one final chance to equal Margaret Court’s record of 23 Grand Slam singles titles but her retirement is near. And Naomi Osaka, who returns to action in Miami today, has slipped down to world No.77 after an emotional defeat in only her third event since the US Open at the Indian Wells Masters.
My abiding memory of Barty becoming the first home singles winner at the Australian Open since 1978 was her post-match celebration with a cold beer in a live TV interview. She was the People’s Champion, the anti-diva of tennis. But she had also suffered from her own off-court problems and has openly talked about the brutal demands of top-level sport.
Life as a tennis professional is gruelling even when you are winning. There is nowhere to hide in an individual sport, no team-mates to bail you out on a bad day. And there is the constant travelling all over the globe with a small team away from friends and family.
She took 11 months out of the sport at home in Queensland during the pandemic and then ended her season after the US Open last September to return home. She got engaged to Garry Kissick, her Liverpool-supporting PGA trainee golf professional, in November and delayed her return to the Tour after her Melbourne triumph. Now we know why.
“I am fulfilled,” she said. “I am happy. I know how much work it takes to bring the best out of yourself. I have said it to my team multiple times: I don’t have that in me any more. I don’t have the physical drive, the emotional want and everything it takes to challenge yourself at the very top of the level anymore. I just know I am spent.”