Everyone in tennis must have stopped in their tracks on Wednesday when world No 1 Ashleigh Barty suddenly announced her retirement from the sport, less than two months after lifting the Australian Open title.
At just 25, Barty was also the reigning Wimbledon champion, having overcome Karolina Pliskova last summer in a memorable three-set final. But she will not be returning to defend her crown this year.
Barty is due to give a press conference in Brisbane on Thursday, but in the meantime she recorded a brief and tearful Instagram interview with her close friend and former doubles partner Casey Dellacqua.
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An emotional Barty told Dellacqua: “I don’t have the physical drive, the emotional want, and everything it takes to challenge yourself for the very top level any more. I am spent. Physically I have nothing more to give.”
As Barty added, “I’ll never ever, ever stop loving tennis. It’ll always be a massive part of my life. But now I think it’s important that I get to enjoy the next phase of my life as Ash Barty the person not Ash Barty the athlete.”
This shock decision echoed other abrupt and early retirements that have been announced by previous luminaries of women’s tennis.
Martina Hingis was just 22 when she retired for the first time, citing chronic injury, while Justine Henin was also world No 1 when she quit at 25.
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Kim Clijsters was 24 when she retired for the first time, although like Hingis she would later return for a successful second innings.
Having married her boyfriend and given birth to a baby girl, Clijsters went on to add three more major titles to the US Open she had already won.
While Barty’s passion for tennis has never been in doubt, she has always struggled with the travel involved in the sport.
As an Australian on the world tour, it is difficult to take any breaks to visit family and friends once the season starts, and she was away from home for a whopping five straight months last year.
She previously stepped away from the game as an 18-year-old to live a more normal life – a period in which she represented the Brisbane Heat cricket team in the Women’s Big Bash League.
Barty has since said that her cricketing break, which lasted roughly a year and a half, had given her a chance to work on her mental health.
In an interview with Dellacqua on Wednesday, she explained: “It [retirement] is something I’ve been thinking about for a long time. Wimbledon last year changed a lot for me as a person. [It was] my dream, my the one true dream that I wanted in tennis, that really changed my perspective. And I just had that gut feeling after Wimbledon, and had spoken to my team quite a lot about it.
“There was just a little part of me that wasn’t quite satisfied, wasn’t quite fulfilled,” Barty added.
“And then came the challenge of the Australian Open. That for me just feels like the most perfect way to celebrate what an amazing journey my tennis career has been. Now I want to chase after some other dreams that I’ve always wanted to do, and to have that really healthy balance.”
Barty has lifted three of the four major trophies, with the odd one out being the US Open. She also won 25 of her final 27 matches, dating back to the start of last year’s Wimbledon.
Her successor as world No 1 will be the 20-year-old Pole Iga Swiatek, who has just won back-to-back titles in Doha and Indian Wells.
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