Ash Barty’s shock retirement gives tennis plenty to ponder

World number one is putting her mental health before the demands of the game

Initially it was a surprise. Then it wasn’t so much that as a realisation. Another young player stepping away prematurely rolled back a tennis clock this week. The name, though, that was surprising. It was Ashleigh Barty and not Naomi Osaka.

It was Osaka who announced at last year's French Open that she would not conduct her mandatory media assignments. After she won her first match in straight sets and did not hold a press conference, she was fined $15,000 and threatened with rising levels of fines and expulsion.

The following day, she announced her withdrawal from the tournament, citing mental health issues. Tennis was criticised for being slow to learn and fast to act.

Many athletes supported Osaka, noting she was raising a rarely discussed issue of mental health, although the overall reaction from the wider tennis community was mixed. The following month, Osaka's agent announced that she would not participate in the upcoming Wimbledon Championships.

Osaka is just one of the reasons why the decision of French Open, Wimbledon and Australian Open champion and world number one Barty to walk away from tennis brought other names to mind.

Björn Borg, Justine Henin, Kim Clijsters, Marion Bartoli, Jennifer Capriati and even Steffi Graf at 30 years old and still the world number three called time on themselves at the top of, or, close to the peak of their powers.

Real tremor

With Barty, the question was how much of a real tremor could it have been, when it was the second time. She was the Wimbledon junior champion at age 15 in 2011, then left the tour for nearly two years in 2014 because of burnout, overwhelmed by the pressure and travel.

Professional cricket in Australia kept her occupied before she picked up the racket once again to make a successful return to tennis. Now after the second departure her words, which seem to echo those of players who had left before, ring with certainty and finality.

That may well freak the International Tennis Federation and Women's Tennis Association. They have a tour in which their top player cannot bear to play.

Tennis more than other sports has had to try to protect its younger players, especially in the women’s game where teen starlets punch through to the higher levels much more quickly than the men. The 18-year-old American Coco Gauff is the latest.

In the Open era (professional tennis since 1968), Martina Hingis became the youngest Grand Slam winner ever, when she won the Australian Open in 1997 aged 16 years and 117 days. Hingis broke Monica Seles's record from seven years earlier at the 1990 French Open, which she won at 16 years 189 days.

Of the top 10 youngest Grand Slam winners in tennis, just two are men, Boris Becker at 17 years 228 days and Michael Chang at 17 years 110 days. All of the other teen Major winners – Graf, Maria Sharapova, Serena Williams, Arantxa Vicario, Tracey Austin, Seles and Hingis – have been in their 17th or 18th years.

Deflated

But Hingis and Austin, who retired early too, did not suffer burnout in the same way the deflated, exhausted Barty did. Theirs was physical injury, perhaps brought on by playing a high level at such young ages.

In an interview with the Los Angeles Times in 1985 Austin was asked about it.

“Burnout did not happen to me. I had injuries,” she said. “And because I love to play tennis so much, I went back too quickly after the injuries. When you get injured, you have to take time off, and you lose a little bit of your fitness. I would go straight away back into it without regaining that fitness, and then get injured again. It was a vicious cycle.”

Andrea Jaeger, another young shooting star, who retired in 1985 at age 19, had been a French Open and Wimbledon finalist in 1982 and 1983, but a shoulder injury ended her troubled career.

Henin, like Barty, was 25 years old and also the world number one when she stopped. Favourite to win that year’s French Open, she retired in May 2008 as the power of the Williams sisters, Venus and Serena, threatened to shape the game for a long time.

Clijsters was a dominant player by age 20 in 2003. She was a world number one and got to four Grand Slam finals before finally winning her fifth at the 2005 US Open. She had also been hinting at retirement throughout the year.

When she did retire in May 2007, she was 23 years old and wanted to concentrate on her personal life and have children.

In August 1999 30-year-old Graf had just won the French Open, was a Wimbledon finalist, and ranked world number three.

“I have done everything I wanted to do in tennis. I feel I have nothing left to accomplish,” she said, adding it was not about injuries but that “I’m not having fun anymore”.

Same again

Marion Bartoli was 28 years old and had just won Wimbledon. But she also felt that her body would not stand up to what she knew it would take to do the same again. She was ranked seventh in the world.

“I really felt I gave all the energy I have left in my body. I made my dream a reality and it will stay with me forever,” she said.

Barty is using similar words about staying on a tour, saying that she was “absolutely spent” and “physically I have nothing more to give”, explaining that after achieving her ultimate personal goal in the sport, winning Wimbledon, she still “wasn’t quite fulfilled”.

She leaves with $24 million in prize money alone and she is leaving for a second time in what has already been a 10-year professional career, with two of those playing cricket.

Maybe, like Clijsters, Henin, Hingis, Borg or Capriati, who made her professional debut at 13 years old when that was permitted, before she took a 14-month break at age 17, Barty too might find a way back. Either way, tennis and its professional tour at elite level will begin some further introspection.

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