December 2023 – January 2024

Essays

Ash’s to Ash’s

By Ben Rothenberg
Ash Barty with winners trophy, Wimbledon, 2021

Ash Barty, Wimbledon, 2021. © Mike Hewitt / PA Wire / AAP Images

From stepping away from tennis as a youth before returning to dominate Wimbledon and the Australian Open, to retiring as world No. 1 at the age of 25, Ash Barty has always owned her career path

Ash Barty and Naomi Osaka had all the makings of a classic rivalry: close in age (Barty is only a year and six months older) and close in results (they traded the No.1 ranking back and forth from early 2019 to early 2022 and each won a handful of grand slam titles), but with very different ways of going about being a tennis champion. The two had the sort of contrasts in their game styles that often create the most intriguing match-ups: Japan’s Osaka, six inches taller, was a committed power baseliner with flat, percussive strokes, while Barty played an all-court game built around variety, including an off-speed backhand slice that bewitched opponents. They also had very different personalities as public figures: Osaka was quiet and contemplative, yet spontaneous, whereas the meticulous Barty always seemed to have an affable answer pre-prepared.

The crucial thing the Barty–Osaka rivalry lacked, however, was matches against each other. For their entire runs as the two parallel shooting stars blazing across the top of women’s tennis, Barty and Osaka almost never crossed paths. In the three years in which they held the No. 1 ranking between them, they only played each other once, in the final of the 2019 China Open, a thriller that Osaka won in three sets. (Compare that to earlier rivals such as Chris Evert and Martina Navratilova, who played each other 80 times, including 11 times in the 1975 season alone.) Otherwise, the two consistently missed each other at their best, seeming to surge and retreat reciprocally from their opposite corners of the globe; when one shone her brightest, the other always seemed to dim. And though it seemed like there might be time for these two stars to constellate into something beautiful that could be a guiding light for women’s tennis for years to come, one of them suddenly flickered out.


The spotlight was ready for Ashleigh Barty before she was ready for the spotlight. As a 15-year-old, she marched through the girls’ singles draw at Wimbledon in 2011, losing only one set (to 16-year-old American Madison Keys) en route to the title. Barty was the first Australian to win the girls’ singles title at the hallowed ground in more than 30 years.

“Come that handshake, I think everything hit me pretty quickly,” Barty told me years later. “It was probably one of the best moments and one of the worst moments of my career, in the sense that it was a big factor when the pressure and everything changed. I think if you’re ready to accept that, and embrace it, and learn to deal with it, it can help you. But for me, I wasn’t ready to do that.”

Barty stayed away from the spotlight as best she could – she even skipped Wimbledon’s champions’ ball immediately after her win, so eager was she to get home. Barty’s childhood coach, Jim Joyce, remembered seeing the toll the “berserk” media attention took on her. “I remember thinking, If Ash doesn’t have a break, we’re going to lose her,” he said.

But Barty pressed onward towards a professional career. When she was 16, she moved to Melbourne to live alone in an apartment near Tennis Australia’s training centre, cooking and cleaning for herself when she wasn’t travelling the pro tour, and living a lonely life far from her loved ones.

“Maybe she was a victim of her own success, to a degree,” her later coach, Jason Stoltenberg, told me in 2016. “We tried really hard to try to manage that, and to protect her from that as best we could, but maybe things happened a little too fast for Ash. If things could’ve been a little bit slower maybe that would have helped. I could see over time that it was probably wearing on her a little bit, and I wasn’t surprised at all when she decided to take a break.”

Though her results were immediately strong in doubles – alongside Casey Dellacqua, 11 years her senior, she made the finals of three grand slam events in 2013 – Barty wasn’t achieving similar heights in singles, where she didn’t come near cracking the top 100. Though she was still young, the pressure to make good on her potential was mounting, as was the mental strain it took on her. She began to fear both failure and success (“What if I do well enough that this lonely way of living becomes my life?”). Three years on from her junior triumph at Wimbledon, she broke down while talking to Stoltenberg. “I was in tears, in his arms, and just said I couldn’t do it anymore,” she recalled years later.

Stoltenberg had seen how her self-belief didn’t keep pace with what others saw in her game. “It didn’t stack up right. I think she had to get to a point where she took control of her own tennis and her life, and by stopping it was her way of taking control and getting things back to where she needed it to be in order for her to make any decisions moving forward.”

She decided the 2014 US Open would be her last event. “I flew home smiling, as if drifting on a cloud,” she wrote in her 2022 memoir, My Dream Time. “It was clear to [family and friends] already that I was suffering from depression. I’d been quiet for weeks, speaking to almost no one.”

But, along with time relaxing with family and jaunts to the beach – and playing cricket, including for Brisbane Heat in the inaugural Women’s Big Bash League – there was a crucial part of Barty’s recovery that has often been overlooked in telling her story: her father encouraged her to talk to a doctor in the family for counselling. Robert Barty knew how important psychiatric help had been in his own life and thought he had passed some of his difficulties on to his daughter. Through therapy, Barty was able to admit that she felt a “heavy cloud” over herself, and would take medication to treat depression for nearly two years. The therapy also helped her address negative tendencies, such as a perfectionist streak that is often at odds with the ebbs and flows of a tennis career.

“A big part of my philosophy was always that tennis is a game, and I wanted to enjoy it,” she told me during her hiatus. “At the end of the day, it was just a game that I wanted to have fun in, enjoy. And for me it turned into a little bit of a slog, and I wasn’t enjoying it quite as much as I would have liked. So, I thought it was the right time for me to step away.”

Then, after being encouraged by Dellacqua to hit some balls, Barty decided to return to tennis a year-and-a-half after she had hung up her racquet. “It’s no different from going on vacation for two weeks – it just happened to be 16 or 18 months this time,” she said. “It was just time for me to refresh.”

When Barty came back, she soared, climbing nearly 300 spots up the rankings in her first full year on tour. She cracked the top 10 when she won the 2019 Miami Open and reached No. 1 when she won the French Open and a WTA event in Birmingham, ending Naomi Osaka’s 21-week run at the top spot. Osaka would regain the No. 1 ranking for four weeks during the summer, but Barty displaced her once more and never relinquished it (with some help from the adjustments to the rankings formula that came during the pandemic), holding on to the top spot for the remaining 114 weeks of her career, which included titles at both Wimbledon and the Australian Open.

Barty’s second ascent was steep and steady because she arrived ready to navigate around the pitfalls that had tripped her up during her first stint on the tour. Midway through 2018, after a devastating third-round loss at Wimbledon, she began speaking to a mental coach, Ben Crowe. She cites that loss and her ensuing work with Crowe as the turning point in her second career, separating her sport from her self-worth and learning not to mistake “the games we play for the people we are”.

Barty went to great lengths to make clear her career was a team effort shared between her and her coaches, using the first-person plural “we” to refer to her results and training. She also managed media attention by choosing carefully considered answers in press conferences and interviews, using a folksy, upbeat but unrevealing tenor. “I’m never going to tell them anything, but they believe I’m revealing all,” she later wrote of the press. “She’s been almost guarded,” remarked host Kelli Underwood on ABC TV’s Offsiders shortly after Barty first reached the No. 1 ranking. “She’s been really careful … she doesn’t give any opinions whatsoever.”

Barty also avoided possible political entanglements away from her sport. Though both Barty and Osaka made history as successful women of colour in a historically white sport, their approaches toward addressing their identities took very different forms. While Osaka amplified the Black Lives Matter movement and attended protests, Barty’s public comments on her Indigenous background as a Ngarigo woman steered clear of any overt statements, though she made it clear her heritage was important to her. In My Dream Time, Barty wrote that she had no desire “to be a pin-up for anyone else’s cause or a weapon in anyone else’s fight”. Instead, she focused on trying to be a role model within tennis, carrying on the legacy of Evonne Goolagong Cawley, and making volunteer appearances at community tennis programs for Indigenous children.


Perhaps in part because of her avoidance of attention, Barty’s endorsement earnings were purportedly paltry by the standards of a world No.1: in the last 10 months of her career, which included her wins at Wimbledon and the Australian Open, Sportico estimated that her prize money, of close to US$5.1 million (the most earnt by any female athlete during that period), was more than double her estimated off-court earnings of US$2.5 million. That ratio was a considerable inversion from the woman she had replaced at No. 1: during a similar window, Osaka had earnt just US$1.2 million in prize money, but an estimated US$52 million in endorsements.

Still, Barty earnt plenty in prize money, including the most lucrative cheque in tennis history – US$4.42 million – for winning the 2019 year-end WTA championships, and earnings like that were more than enough for her. Unlike some stars, such as Lleyton Hewitt and Nick Kyrgios, Barty had abjured living in an overseas tax haven – “how much money do you need?” she wrote of such arrangements – and she found that time with sponsors was depleting more than the money was enriching. “To the people involved, each commitment might seem like a minor drain on my time and energy, but the cumulative effect of such appointments is insidious. It takes hold by increments, each interruption requiring a degree of preparation and debriefing, meaning I can’t really relax – not fully, anyway.”

As her profile in Australia grew, she became privately exhausted by her fame. When she played the 2020 Australian Open, her first time playing at her home slam as the top seed, she expressed some good-natured exasperation when I asked her about seeing herself on front pages and billboards around Melbourne: “My face is everywhere, a little bit, isn’t it? I’m a bit sick of it, to be honest.” Though she had become the poster girl for the tournament and the odds-on favourite, she always deflected notions of pressure to live up to others’ expectations, saying things such as, “We’re just going along for the ride, trying to play some good tennis” and “I’m coming into the first Grand Slam of the year with a smile on my face – that’s all I can ask of myself.”

Barty fought to maintain that equilibrium even when deeply disappointed by results. After she had sailed smoothly through her first five matches of that 2020 Australian Open, coming within two matches of being the first Australian woman to win in Melbourne since 1978, she suffered a surprise straight-set semifinal defeat to an unheralded challenger, 14th-seeded Sofia Kenin. Barty should have won the match – she had set points in both the first and second sets, but couldn’t produce her best on the biggest points.

But where others might have struggled having to explain their failure to the gathered media, Barty entered the press room with her arms pre-emptively full so she wouldn’t have to carry the weight of a disappointed nation. She sat at the podium with a pink baby blanket draped over her shoulder, holding her three-month-old niece, Olivia, on her lap. Sitting in the front row, I asked the obvious first question – “Where’d you find the baby?” – to address the adorable, pink romper–wearing elephant in the room.

“Yeah, this is what life is all about,” Barty said, with a slight sniffle, as she introduced her niece. “It’s amazing … perspective is a beautiful thing. Life is a beautiful thing. She brought a smile to my face as soon as I came off the court … It’s all good. It’s all good.” The rest of the press conference proceeded much as a Barty press conference always did: she stayed chipper and in control of her answers, and baby Olivia occasionally softly cooed into the microphones.

Barty’s introduction of an infant into the press room became, improbably, the most controversial moment of her uncontentious career. The hosts of The Tennis Podcast joked that Olivia had been a “human shield” to protect her aunt from tough questions during a “rather bizarre press conference”. Former doubles champion Mark Woodforde called it “a way of deflecting some of the tough questions … they want you to bear your soul”.

But for some, the baby gesture made Barty’s feelings on her loss more transparent. “Honestly, the minute she did, the message that was conveyed to me is that Ash is shattered, she’s gutted by this loss,” my co-host Courtney Nguyen said on the No Challenges Remaining podcast. “This is a player who basically left the game because she struggled mentally with the stresses of the game. If she wants to go in and be reminded that none of this matters, that a little fuzzy tennis ball doesn’t matter, I just don’t see getting mad at it, to be quite honest.”

Barty wasn’t sympathetic when Osaka’s own struggles with the media emerged a year later, after Osaka put out a statement saying she wouldn’t do press conferences at the 2021 French Open, setting up a stand-off with the organisers that became a media firestorm. “Oh, I think in my opinion, press is kind of part of the job,” Barty said, adding that it was “not something that’s ever fazed me too much”.


After following the Australian Open with a tournament in Dubai, Barty receded from the sport for the rest of the pandemic-interrupted 2020 season. Rather than endure the strict quarantine requirements required for international travel back to Australia, she ended her season, skipping the tour’s resumption that included the US Open – won by Osaka – and her title defence at the French Open.

In 2021, she committed to playing a fuller schedule, taking a long international trip from March to September, which included 10 tournaments without a break to return home, because of the continuing travel restrictions. The long slog was a huge success, seeing her win titles in Miami, Stuttgart, Cincinnati and, on the 50th anniversary of Goolagong Cawley’s first title there, the women’s championship in Wimbledon. But it also took its toll: after a fourth-round loss at the US Open, Barty had had enough, and cut out the two lucrative tournaments remaining on her schedule – Indian Wells and the WTA Finals. She headed home for what she alone knew would be her final off-season.

Barty was worn down by her triumphant year. She had travelled for 203 consecutive days, during which she had taken 74 Covid tests. And just as crucially, she didn’t feel hungry for more success. She set her mind to retire before the 2022 season began. “I don’t know what I’m playing for anymore – I think I’m done,” she recalled telling one of her coaches. She grimly compared the life cycle of a professional sportsperson to Sisyphus. “Professional athletes serve that same life sentence – push that same rock up that same hill – only we hand this punishment to ourselves.” Though she was persuaded to make one last push for the Australian Open title, her coaches and managers couldn’t convince her that she could simply play a more selective schedule after that. Her mind was made up: she was done.

With a career finish line in sight, Barty came out of the blocks flying to start the 2022 season. After losing the first set she played, against Coco Gauff, she won the remaining 22, reeling off an 11–0 start to the season that peaked with a cathartic, historic title at the Australian Open, the first for an Australian woman since 1978. And Barty didn’t just win the Australian Open, she dominated it, never losing a set. When she clinched the final in a tiebreak over American Danielle Collins, Barty turned to her players’ box inside Rod Laver Arena and roared a cathartic release.

With upsets peppering the draw, Barty hadn’t needed to face a top-20 player en route to the title – a hotly anticipated fourth round match against 13th-seeded Osaka was narrowly avoided when Osaka couldn’t convert two match points in her match against Amanda Anisimova – but there was still little doubt how much better Barty was than anyone else on tour. The only question pundits were asking was how much more she could rack up before the field caught up to her, and if she could complete her “Career Slam” – victories at the four major championships – with a win in New York.

Yet Barty had no ambitions to complete the set of four. After her triumphant Australian Open, she had withdrawn from the two next big WTA events, Indian Wells and Miami, but the news she dropped on a Wednesday morning in Queensland still shocked the tennis world.

“I’ll be retiring from tennis,” Barty announced in a video posted to her Instagram on March 23. “It’s the first time I’ve actually said it out loud. Yeah, it’s hard to say, but I am so happy and I’m so ready. I just know at the moment, in my heart, for me as a person, this is right. And I know I’ve done this before, but in a very different feeling. I’m so grateful to everything that tennis has given me. It’s given me all of my dreams, plus more. But I know that the time is right now for me to step away and chase other dreams.

“There was a perspective shift in me in this second phase of my career that my happiness wasn’t dependent on the results,” Barty said. “And success for me is knowing that I’ve given absolutely everything I can. I’m fulfilled. I’m happy.”


Much of the discussion around Barty’s retirement was tinged with a feeling that it reflected poorly on tennis, where careers often end at young ages due to “burnout”, to have a 25-year-old player saying she would be stopping at the peak of her powers. “This sport just eats people,” wrote Matthew Futterman of The New York Times.

But many of Barty’s peers in the locker room saw things very differently. She hadn’t been consumed; she’d been liberated. Danielle Collins, who would go down as Barty’s last opponent, quickly reframed the conversation of “burnout”. After all, if a tech entrepreneur cashed out with millions and retired at 25, they’d be called a breakaway success story. Why couldn’t a tennis player be talked about the same way?

“I think for someone to retire at 25, I think it really speaks to the way our sport empowers women,” Collins said. “I think it’s just incredible for her to have achieved what she’s achieved on court, to now be able to enjoy the rest of her life … It’s something to really celebrate and really acknowledge.”

That feeling of contentment was one some coaches actively worked against in tennis. Kamau Murray, the coach of American player Sloane Stephens, said it was key “to have the player feeling a little bit empty” in order to find success on tour. “You get married, you have kids, you get fulfilled,” Murray said. “When you have that player that is kind of fulfilled, it’s hard for them to dig.”

Barty’s declaration that she was satisfied was radical in a culture where champions often push past reasonable limits. Elsewhere in 2022, the negative effects of relentless digging could be seen with some of the game’s biggest stars.

So that he could play the 2022 Australian Open, a tournament he had already won a record nine times before, Novak Djokovic spent days holed up in a Melbourne hotel turned immigration detention centre – and untold sums on a team of lawyers – fighting two successive deportation orders against him for entering Australia without the mandatory vaccination against Covid-19. The surreal stand-off turned into a two-week international media circus, drawing Djokovic the ire of the public and politicians and the support of fringe anti-vax voices. He was ultimately deported on the eve of the tournament.

And in order to play the 2022 French Open, a tournament he had already won a record 13 times before, Rafael Nadal received anaesthetic injections into his nerves to numb the pain from Mueller–Weiss syndrome, a degenerative foot condition that had already caused him to contemplate retirement. Nadal won the French Open once more with his left foot “asleep” during the final, but was visibly limping during his photoshoot with the trophy the next day. Asked how many injections he had received during the tournament, he replied, “It’s better that you don’t know.” Nadal has struggled ever since, withdrawing midway through Wimbledon weeks later and dismally losing eight of the 13 matches he played subsequently. After losing in the second round of the 2023 Australian Open, he missed the rest of the 2023 season.


Naomi Osaka saw the news when she woke up in the middle of the night to use the bathroom. “My friend texted me: she’s like, ‘Yo, do you know that Barty retired?’ I was, like, ‘Whoa, that’s weird.’”

In the same press conference in Miami where Osaka revealed she had recently begun speaking to a therapist, she was asked to react to the news of the woman who should have been her rival. Her reaction wasn’t as wistful as those outside the sport.

“I feel, like, really happy for her,” Osaka said. “I know last year was quite tough: she didn’t really go home at all – I think that certainly took a toll. But it was also really inspiring to watch how dedicated she was that entire year … I think what she did was ideal. I think it’s cool to leave the game when you’re No. 1. You feel like you have nothing left to prove. You feel like you accomplished everything that you wanted to.”

Both players gave birth in mid 2023. Osaka decided she still wanted more tennis, and has planned her comeback around the 2024 Australian Open. Barty has stayed retired.

Ben Rothenberg

Ben Rothenberg is a sportswriter from Washington, DC, and the author of the upcoming Naomi Osaka.

 

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