Ashleigh Barty's friend and mentor Evonne Goolagong Cawley recalls watching Barty play as a junior. After one point, when the 13-year-old unleashed her all-court repertoire, she turned to her husband, Roger, and said "she's going to be our next champion." Two years later, Barty walked into the gates at the All England Club and won the girls' title. This was a blessing.
It was also a curse. In the sports-mad nation of Australia, the hopes of a nation soon fell on Barty's shoulders. The long road trips wore on her, and by the time she was 18, Barty walked away from tennis. While she was successful in doubles with partner Casey Dellacqua - the two made three major finals together - Barty had yet to break into the Top 100 in singles.
As time went on, the feeling of unfinished business began to weigh on Barty. A hitting session with Dellacqua rekindled ideas of a return to the tour. So at 20 years old, Barty came back, this time on her own terms. When she stepped on court for the first WTA event of her comeback, at 2016 Nottingham, Barty did not have a ranking. Still, she reached the quarterfinals as a qualifier, falling to Karolina Pliskova in two tiebreaks.
"I didn't have any goals of knowing how long I would play for," Barty recently said on the WTA Insider Podcast. "I wanted to win Wimbledon. That was always the dream. Sometimes your dreams don't come true, but sometimes they do. All I wanted to do in this second phase of my career was feel like I gave it absolutely everything and know that I left no stone unturned."
Flash forward five years to 2021, and it would be Pliskova standing across the net when Barty won the one title she openly coveted: Wimbledon.
Barty's emotional win came in the midst of her most remarkable season, one that would cement her position at the top of the game. But while the tennis world was celebrating her victory and looking ahead to what it might mean to the game for years to come, Barty had other ideas.
"When you work for 20 years towards something and you finally achieve that, I was thinking, 'What else is there?'" Barty said. What more could this sport offer me? What more could I gain from playing the sport?"
Barty went through the motions as best she could to finish last season. She would win her fifth and final title of the season at the WTA 1000 in Cincinnati. But the struggle was real.
"Once we got to the Olympics it hit home for me that there wasn't much left in her," Barty's coach Craig Tyzzer said. "The motivation wasn't there except when she played doubles with Storm [Sanders] and mixed with John Peers. Her singles really went by the wayside. I really felt like she climbed to where she needed to get to and it was going to be a hard slog to keep her involved. So I sort of felt it was coming."
"Even after her first Grand Slam at the French, I had actually prepared this speech about how profound this was going to be and what it meant for her. And her first words to me were 'Can I retire now?'"
WTA Insider Podcast: The Best of Barty
- 2018 Zhuhai: Barty wins Zhuhai in style
- 2019 Miami: Barty wins her 1st WTA 1000 title in stunning fashion
- 2019 Roland Garros: Barty comes full-circle to win her first major title
- Porsche No.1 Podcast: Barty finishes the 2019 season as the year-end No.1
- 2019 WTA Finals: Barty wins the biggest prize money check in tennis history
- 2021 Stuttgart: Barty battles from the brink to win Stuttgart
- 2021 Wimbledon: Barty and Goolagong Cawley linked forever (Champions Corner)
- 2022 Australian Open: Barty brings it home
In fact, Wimbledon wasn't the only notable title run in Barty's career. Her first trip overseas for tennis was to Paris in 2009. Ten years later, she would hoist the Coupe Suzanne Lenglen in 2019. It was a win that surprised Barty herself. Just months earlier she had said every week of clay season was a week closer to the grass season.
"Playing the Australian summer was a really special opportunity for me to give it one last crack of playing at home and doing something no Aussie had done in over 40 years," Barty said. "It was a really exciting opportunity for me. I just wanted to go out there, one last crack, no regrets, just enjoy the moment and see what happens."
Though the idea of retirement was percolating, she wasn't sure whether the the Australian Open would be her final tournament.
"In Adelaide I wasn't so sure," Barty said. "First tournament of the season, it's always a bit of a challenge. Emotionally you're not sure how you're feeling, you're not sure where your level is at.
"I think probably after the second round at the Australian Open, I sat down with my team and there was a moment for me where I was like, 'You know what, this is the last one. This is the last Australian Open.'
"Just really enjoy it, embrace it, take it for what it is, and stay super present in every moment because I'm never going to get that moment back again."
In her march toward the title, Barty did not lose a set and ended Australia's 44-year drought for a home champion. Her roaring celebration on match point was cathartic, an exorcism of all the pressure that had weighed on her since being anointed Australia's Next Great Hope a decade earlier.
"What it felt like for me was a bit of a full-circle redemption moment," Barty said. "I felt like I had been really close at the Australian Open before, but I was never able to come off the court and think I had no regrets. There was something eating at me from the Australian Open point of view. I was really fortunate to be able to experience that this year."
In every way, the Australian Open was a celebration of Ash Barty, of the player and sports personality she had become. This after nearly two years of stringent lockdowns because of the pandemic.
Almost immediately, the attention turned to the exact question Barty had asked herself six months earlier: What's next? There were questions about her chances of completing the career Grand Slam, at the US Open. Maybe she could become the first woman since Serena Williams to win Slams on all three surfaces in a single season.
But even as she accepted the trophy from Goolagong Cawley on Rod Laver Arena, or while sharing beers with Dellacqua and Alicia Molik on television or during her whirlwind media rounds over the next two days, Barty's mind was settled. All those questions everyone else had would go unanswered. Her Melbourne victory lap would ultimately become Barty's final lap.
"Straight after, more than anything it was solidified," Barty said. "Nothing will ever get better than this on a tennis court.
"Not just that we had won a Grand Slam, it was all the work we had done to get to that point and the memories and experiences we had along the way and how much fun we had in those two weeks at the Australian Open. We were acting like absolute pork chops, having fun with it, playing games. That's what I'll miss with my team, that camaraderie.
"I knew that feeling for me was a full-circle moment. It just felt right."
That Barty was able to celebrate her final triumph with her loved ones in the stands and courtside was poignant. She completed her career with 15 singles titles and 12 doubles titles and finished as the year-end No.1 for the past three seasons.
Yet before her 15th and final title, most of Barty's milestone moments were celebrated by only her inner circle. At Roland Garros, her parents weren't able to get to Paris in time, landing in London just as the final began. Wimbledon came during the pandemic. Finally in Melbourne, her group of friends and family who shaped and shepherded Barty throughout her tennis career could sit courtside.
"I just know in my heart I've been so fortunate to be so successful because I've given everything to this sport and the people around me have helped me do that," Barty said. "I'm so grateful to them that they've invested so much time and energy in my career and our journey.
"Even looking at the photos and thinking of the memories of the last five-six years, not one of them is a photo of me on court. Not one of them is a photo of just me. It's the silly little nuances, it's the stupid things we did off the court, it's the fun times that I remember the most. Those are the things that allow me to walk away knowing that I'm so fulfilled and so happy."
Barty has walked away before, but this time she does so without regret. She has a pack of dogs she misses dearly. A family she's been away from for too long. Nieces and nephews who are begging to be taught that famous "chisel."
Beneath her bright smile and easy-going personality has always lurked a rebellious spirit. Her tennis journey proved it. Her uniquely singular game proved it. And her punk-rock decision of walking away at the peak of her powers merely underlined it.
"Is it forever? The door to my career is closed at the moment, and firmly. ... But I do hold the key to the padlock and who knows what the future holds," Barty wrote for CodeSports last week.
"But before anyone goes rushing to buy tickets to the 2023 Australian Open in the hope I might be back to defend my title, hold your horses. I am certain my future lies elsewhere."
As Barty laid down the No.1 torch that she had held for 114 consecutive weeks, a familiar foe and frequent practice partner stepped up to the challenge. Iga Swiatek had been open about her admiration of Barty throughout their last season, marveling at the Aussie's high-level consistency and professionalism and using her as a benchmark for the development of her own game. The 20-year-old Pole even spent dedicated blocks of her pre-season to solving the Barty riddle. The news that the woman she had set up to chase was exiting the game hit Swiatek hard.
But during her run to the Miami Open title, where she sealed the No.1 ranking, Swiatek left no doubt she was the perfect heir to the throne. Look closely, and the path was already being paved. Barty won Roland Garros in 2019. Swiatek won it in 2020. Barty won Adelaide in 2020. Swiatek won it in 2021. Barty won the last two editions of Miami. Swiatek won the next.
"I know that if it is Iga, there is no better person," Barty said. "She's an incredible person, a great tennis player. The way that she's brought this fresh, fearless energy onto the court has been incredible.
"I loved testing myself against her. I loved playing her. I loved practicing with her and spending time with her team. She's a brilliant person, and was one of the first to message me, which is really nice.
It's still a little bit surreal to me… @ashbarty thank you for what you've done for our sport, for every time we practiced together and played against each other - it was always a challenge in the best way possible. I hope you'll enjoy every second in this new chapter Champ. 💛 pic.twitter.com/iZ6ZGlaEuz— Iga Świątek (@iga_swiatek) March 24, 2022
Barty is assured she leaves the tour in good hands. No one understands the deep talent pool more than the woman who spent every last ounce of energy holding her opponents off to achieve her dreams.
"It's a new start for the tour, which is going to be really exciting for them," Barty told reporters. "They've got exceptional players, great depth. It's going to be really exciting for them."