We had to wait for so long, through so many tennis brats and underachievers, for a gem with the talent and true sportsmanship of Ash Barty.
And just like that, it’s over for Ash Barty.
Fifty years of waiting for a female Aussie tennis champ in the mould of Evonne Goolagong Cawley who could compete at the pointy end of grand slams year-in year-out — and it lasted for just three.
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Two decades after Lleyton Hewitt’s reign as world number one and Australia finally had the best player on the planet again — and it’s cut short.
You won’t read a bad word about Ash Barty anywhere in the wake of her decision to retire at age 25 but it’s incredibly sad for Aussie tennis fans — and the game in general.
How many underachievers and tennis brats did we have to sit through to wait for a gem like Barty to come along?
How many times — in any sport in this country — have we had such a perfect package of talent, true sportsmanship and top role modelling?
How the hell are we supposed to get excited about the Australian Open next summer when most of the country will struggle to name our next highest-ranked female player — let alone the faceless conglomeration of Europeans who fill the rest of the top 10?
Barty’s decision might have been the right one for her but it’s a national tragedy for the rest of us.
It spells danger for the women’s game more broadly too.
The Queenslander’s final foe at Melbourne Park this year, American Danielle Collins, tried to spin Barty’s exit as a positive by saying: “To retire at 25, it really speaks to the way our sport empowers women. It’s so cool being able to retire at 25. What other profession would you be able to do that in? There’s not too many. I think it’s incredible for our sport.”
But that’s ignoring the motivation for Barty’s decision.
International tennis has become such a taxing affair that the best player in the world is walking away and the one widely considered the best now in her absence — Japan’s Naomi Osaka — is ranked 77th because she was so unhappy last year she stopped playing.
One you could put down to individual circumstances. Two suggests the endless travel, year-long calendar and intense spotlight has become too much for even the best of the best.
Just when it felt like the women’s game was beginning to emerge from the giant shadows cast by Roger Federer, Rafael Nadal and Novak Djokovic, Serena Williams is no longer a contender, Barty is gone and who knows how much longer Osaka will last.
But at least there’s still hope Osaka can pull herself together and resume her pursuit of legend status. For Ash, that’s gone unfortunately.
With French, Wimbledon and Australian Open trophies in her cabinet and the fourth-longest stretch as the WTA rankings leader secured, Barty will never be forgotten.
But if she’d been able to continue as world number one for another year and conservatively added one grand slam title per year until she was 30? That would have left her in an unassailable position as Australia’s greatest ever female player and an icon of the sport.
In the wake of her decision, Barty has been favourably compared to Bjorn Borg, who retired at age 26 with 11 grand slams and the game in the palm of his hand.
But you know who rarely ever gets mentioned in tennis’ GOAT debate? The Swede, who was every bit as good as Federer and must have regretted his decision somewhat given he made a failed comeback a decade after first calling it quits.
Let’s hope Barty doesn’t feel the same in a few years.