What is Ashleigh Barty’s Legacy?

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As a sport, tennis has had its fair share of shocks over the last number of years. And last week we had another one, with the sudden retirement of Ashleigh Barty despite being clear number 1.

On the “shocks” scale this was quite a big one, superficially up there with Bjorn Borg in 1981 and Justine Henin in 2008.  Each of those players made comebacks eventually so let’s not rule that out. However, at the age of 25 what can we describe as Barty’s legacy to tennis?

Well let us first look a quick look at Barty’s career. A player who was touted for big things by Australian tennis at a young age, Barty was earmarked to do great things. This didn’t seem to suit Barty well, who found it difficult to cope with the pressure and expectation. Barty did not like the lonely nature of the tour and by the age of 18, took a “hiatus”. As it turns out, not only to refresh her spirit but to also play professional cricket for the Brisbane Heat. This lasted one year and Barty was back in tennis at the age of 20. The break did Barty good as she came back with renewed focus, making progress in both singles and doubles.

By 2018 Barty won her first US Open doubles title with CoCo Vandeweghe and in 2019 won the French Open title. In fact, the first Australian to win the title since Margaret Court in 1973. Barty would also win the end of year WTA Finals and finish 2019 as Number 1. However, Barty more or less missed the whole of 2020 but retained the number 1 ranking due to Covid19.

2021 proved to be Barty’s best year to date, winning five titles including Miami, Wimbledon and Cincinnati. However, Barty skipped the WTA Finals to avoid extensive travelling, which became a theme during the pandemic. After winning the Australian Open, Barty announced she would miss the “sunshine double” of Indian Wells and Miami. At that point I suspected something was up as Barty missed a number of important tournaments over an eighteen month period. Her retirement came as a shock but I was not completely surprised.

With such a short career, which includes a retirement and a “hiatus”, or mini retirement as a teenager, how can we assess Barty’s legacy? We can do that by looking at the positives and the negatives of her time in tennis.

There are a number of positives worth looking at. The first is the so called hiatus; Barty used the time out to good effect, playing in a team sport and team environment. This no doubt allowed Barty to learn some new things and apply transferable skills. After all, cricket isolates bowler vs batsmen which is similar to server vs returner.  Skills such as footwork for a batter is important and can apply to returning serve.

Another positive would be Barty’s game itself. Not a tall player, Barty is 1.66 m (5 foot 5 inches) but played a game associated with taller stronger players. Barty’s strengths were her serve, forehand and footwork. A game very similar to fellow Australian Sam Stosur, a two hand backhand but felt much more comfortable hitting the slice consistently.

The slice backhand combined with the big forehand confounded opponents and drove Barty to the very top. For her height Barty also hit a lot of aces, 325 in 2021 and won 80% of her service games which is incredible for a WTA player. Not just a good forehand but tactical acumen, athleticism and elite transition game, no doubt helped by her good doubles ability.

Barty was the first Australian woman to win Wimbledon since Evonne Goolagong Cawley in 1980. And then became the first Australian born winner of her home tournament since Chris O’Neill in 1978.

Away from tennis, Barty had a profound effect on indigenous Australians, something that gave her a lot of pride and joy.

With 121 weeks as world Number 1, things seemed set for a stellar career. However, that has all come to a grinding halt. This leads us to some of the negative aspects of what recently took place.

Barty was number 1 for a significant period of time due to the freezing of the ranking system during 2020. Barty went on to miss a number of important tournaments, including the US Open series, US Open and WTA Finals. This allowed Naomi Osaka to take advantage by winning the US Open and Australian Open to take over the number 1 ranking. Barty re-took the number 1 position in the spring of 2021 until retirement, as Osaka found it difficult to deal with the pressures of success. Even though Barty had a great 2021 winning five tournaments, she pulled out of a significant number of events. This included the Canadian Open and WTA Finals. Barty played in the Olympics in Tokyo but got knocked out early.

This gave the impression of being a part time number 1 often missing in action. No doubt Barty is a massive household name in Australia with lots of endorsements, but not the rest of the world. In fact, Barty’s name became much more known after her shock announcement. Barty also never developed a rivalry with any top player, the lifeblood of any sport. This was not Barty’s fault, top players have not been playing each other at the latter stages of major tournaments. However, this does not help put tennis at the forefront of elite sports. Formula One showed how popular rivalries can be when Hamilton and Verstappen fought it out for the title in 2021.

Ashleigh Barty had a great if short career and we wish her the best for her retirement.  I would not be surprised if we see Barty back on a tennis court as a professional in the next two to three years.

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