Ash Barty stunned the tennis world during the week that went by when she announced her retirement from the game. Besides being ranked No. 1 in the Women's Tennis Association (WTA) rankings, Barty is also the reigning Wimbledon and Australian Open champion. She has won Grand Slam titles on three different surfaces - clay (French Open), grass (Wimbledon) and hard court (Australian Open). She is also a top-quality doubles player, reaching a highest ranking of No.5. Further, she is also an accomplished cricketer, whose skills in this game was found good enough to win her selection for a team in the Australian Big Bash League in 2014.
Why should a sportsperson who is so talented and successful throw it all away while at the peak of her prowess at the tender age of 25? The reason given by Barty, during the interview with her former doubles partner Casey Dellacqua, where she announced her retirement states “ I don’t have the physical drive, the emotional want and everything it takes to challenge yourself at the very top of the game anymore. I am spent”. In other words, she was just too sick and tired to continue playing at the highest level and took the escape route.
A quick look at the history of women’s tennis will show that Barty is not the first player to quit the game while being ranked No. 1. Justine Henin of Belgium, winner of seven Grand Slam titles and gold medal at the Athens Olympics in 2004, had retired from the game in 2008 while holding the pole position in the game. However, she had been troubled by an injury to the elbow which took a toll on her physical and mental wellbeing. Though Henin attempted a comeback after two years and even reached the finals of the Australian Open in 2010, she could not sustain herself and left the game for good in 2011.
Barty’s retirement also brings into sharp focus the contrasting approach between the top players in the men's and women’s categories on the issue of retirement. In the men’s side, the top players - Roger Federer, Rafael Nadal and Novak Djokovic - are all past their mid-thirties and still going strong. Federer, the senior-most amongst them at 40 years, has 20 Grand Slam titles to his credit and is currently attempting a comeback to the Association of Tennis Professionals (ATP) tour during this year following a knee surgery that kept him out of competitive tennis for the most part of last season. Last week, this column had discussed about Leander Paes, who kept playing till he was 47 years and was denied a proper farewell due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Hence it is only natural that the question arises as to why women players tend to quit early, while still at the top. Apart from Barty and Henin, we also have the examples of Kim Clijsters, Martina Hingis, Tracy Austin and Andrea Jaeger, who all left the game while still in their 20s. The reasons for their quitting and the manner in which their careers shaped make interesting reading.
Amongst these, Clijsters stands out for multiple reasons. A compatriot of Henin from Belgium, Clijsters won US Open in 2005 but she left the game two years later, at the age of 23, after a series of injuries. However, she returned to the game two years later after giving birth to a daughter in 2008. Her comeback was the stuff of legends as she won the US Open in 2009 after needing a wild card to play in this championship. She proved that this win was no flash in the pan by defending the title in 2010 and winning the Australian Open in 2011 to regain her No. 1 ranking. She retired again in 2012 only to attempt a second comeback seven years later, which was not too successful.
Hingis created history as the youngest ever Grand Slam champion when she won the Australian Open in 1997 at the age of 16 years and 3 months. She was soon ranked No. 1 in the WTA rankings, again the youngest to achieve this position. She was unique in that she played singles and doubles with equal passion and was ranked No. 1 in both categories during the same period. Her skillsets were so exemplary that she won three Grand Slam singles titles in 1997 (Australian Open, Wimbledon and US open) while she won all the four titles in doubles the next year! However, a series of injuries forced her to announce retirement from the game in 2003, when she was only 22 years old and had 40 singles and 36 doubles titles to her credit. Though she returned to the game two years later, she was suspended in 2007 by the International Tennis Federation (ITF) for testing positive for a banned substance. This forced her second retirement from the game. But she staged another comeback in 2010 and continued playing till 2017. During the last phase of her career, she attained more success in doubles, both women's and mixed categories, where she also partnered with Sania Mirza and Leander Paes on a regular basis.
Austin can be considered as the first child prodigy in women's tennis. She took the tennis world by storm during an era dominated by Billie Jean King and Chris Evert by winning the US Open in 1979 as a 16-year-old. Though she won the same championship two years later, she was plagued by repeated injuries and could not register a title triumph after 1983. A road accident added to her woes and she was a shadow of her initial self when she finally quit the game in 1992.
Jaeger was another “wunderkind” from USA who made her mark during the early 1980s. Though she did not win any Grand Slam singles title she reached the finals of the French Open (1982) and Wimbledon (1983) and the semifinals of the US Open and Australian Open as well. A shoulder injury forced her to leave the game in 1985 at the age of 19, after which she studied theology. She spent her years after retirement contributing to charity and taking part in acts of philanthropy. She joined the Anglican Order of Preachers in 2006 and is continuing with her work amongst the poor and needy after being christened “Sister Andrea”.
Barty’s case is different from that of the five described here as she has not been bogged down by any severe or chronic injury. To this extent, her decision to quit can be compared to the one taken by Bjorn Borg, the long-haired Swede who won Wimbledon five times in a row from 1976 to 1980. Borg decided to call it a day in January 1983, when only 26, despite being in good shape physically. The explanation given by this highly reclusive player was that he had lost the intense drive to keep winning matches.
Life at the highest level in individual sporting events like tennis is never easy. In addition to maintaining top physical fitness, one also needs to be in perfect shape mentally to keep winning matches continuously. The number of sacrifices required to be made - diet restrictions, long hours in the gym and court and minimal social life - ensure that the life of a champion is never an easy one. Further, the loneliness caused by the constant travel and staying cocooned in five-star luxury with little contact to the world outside add to the stress levels. Players who cannot cope with this pressure cooker station fade away despite the talent they are blessed with. There is also the possibility of fatigue - physical mental and emotional - popularly known as “burnout”, playing a role in the decision of these players to hang their boots early. The ones who survive are like the long-distance runners; their victories owe as much to their physical stamina and strength of mind as the other skillsets they are blessed with.
But one common factor that is seen in all the cases examined above, with the exception of Jaeger, is their attempt to comeback into the game after a gap. This could not be only for reclaiming their place under the spotlight or experiencing again the “high” brought while performing well in front of a packed arena, which they would have missed once they were out of the game. One should not forget that all these champions had dedicated their entire childhood and adolescence honing and sharpening their skills with the tennis racquet, to the exclusion of everything else. Hence taking a complete break from this sport would have been akin to tearing away an integral part of their being. Jaeger, on the other hand, was able to achieve this as she turned to serious pursuit of theology and social work.
Finally, the million-dollar question - will Barty also resume playing competitive tennis after a gap of a couple of years? Or will she try her hand at cricket again? If I was a betting person I would put my money on Barty getting back to tennis court. The lure of the tennis court and the feel of the racquet in the hand as it strikes the ball will be too much to resist for a person who has lived this game through most of her life. One will have to wait and see whether she returns to the game which made her famous or finds another calling to devote her energies.
Let us leave it to Barty to decide whether she wishes to stage a comeback to tennis or not. More importantly, let her live her life on her own terms unencumbered by the hopes and pressures of others.
(The author is a former international cricket umpire and a senior bureaucrat)