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Barty retires: a regret for the interest of tennis and, perhaps, for the evolution of Swiatek

With the retirement of Ash Barty, tennis may have missed out on a very big rivalry that could have lit up the women’s tennis tour

Ash Barty and Iga Swiatek, Mutua Madrid Open 2021 Ash Barty and Iga Swiatek, Mutua Madrid Open 2021 – © Antoine Couvercelle / Panoramic

“Hell is other people.” Jean-Paul Sartre turned it into a play, Huis Clos. But without the others, it’s not really heaven either. According to several studies, social interactions are one of the necessary needs for humans to feel a state of well-being. In Alone in the World, the character played by Tom Hanks turns a volleyball into his imaginary friend, named Wilson, so that he has some company. In I am legend, the hero, whose role is essayed by Will Smith in the film adaptation, chats with plastic mannequins, humanized by wearing clothes, in order to fight against loneliness.

Iga Swiatek may also have to show ingenuity; Draw two eyes and a mouth on her racket perhaps. Enough to transform her work tool into a great friend (yes, I’m a little ashamed of this Carambar pun, but ridicule does not kill and everything that does not kill makes you stronger!). Because, since her accession to the top spot in the world rankings on April 4, 2022, the Pole is alone on her planet.

Barty’s retirement left Swiatek alone at the top of the world

Before the start of the 2023 season, the 21-year-old Swiatek has a lead of 6,030 points over Ons Jabeur, her closest rival in the rankings. This is more than the gap between the Tunisian – deprived of the points for reaching the Wimbledon final – and the last player in the world rankings, ranked No 1355. An overwhelming domination leaving a regret: the retirement of Ash Barty. If Swiatek was able to start her reign at the end of Miami, a WTA 1000 Series event, it is because the Australian left the throne vacant. Absent since her coronation at the Australian Open, which was her third Grand Slam title, Barty announced the end of her career on March 23, at the age of 25 and asked to be removed from the rankings.

By indulging in a little tennis-fiction at the risk of falling into a fantasy reality for the mind, there may be a parallel world in which Barty is still on the circuit. A universe where tennis fans feast on a rivalry that can potentially turn these two women icons of this sport. Because, apart from fans idolizing a certain player, no one wants to see a single star eclipse all the others. For the story to be as attractive as possible, in the run-up to a major tournament, before a match or during, it requires, at least, two protagonists of similar stature.

John McEnroe has seven Grand Slam titles. That’s as much as Mats Wilander. However, the American enjoys a much more “legendary” reputation than that of the Swede. Why is that? Because of Bjorn Borg. The duel, the opposing styles between “Big Mac” and “Iceborg” is one of the most emblematic in the history of tennis. Most of the gods of the yellow ball have their Nemesis. Among these duos, we can also mention: Martina Navratilova and Chris Evert, Pete Sampras and Andre Agassi, Steffi Graf and Monica Seles, or Rafael Nadal and Roger Federer, later joined by Novak Djokovic.

“I even spent two weeks of my pre-season training against slices”

Iga Swiatek

Others were built with several rivals. Like Serena Williams. The Michigan native first had to scrap with her sister Venus, Martina Hingis, Lindsay Davenport, Jennifer Capriati, Justine Henin, Kim Clijsters, Amelie Mauresmo and Arantxa Sanchez. One of the periods when the public was most caught up in the women’s circuit. Then, as retirements led to less tough competition, the American, becoming more and more impressive, began to reign unchallenged despite some occasional rivals, like Victoria Azarenka. As a result, the interest of spectators and viewers declined. The wear and tear of time doing its work, Serena also declined.

To see a player establish herself durably as a leader, it was necessary to wait for the advent of Ash Barty and her 121 weeks as Queen of the women’s tour. That’s the seventh highest total in WTA history. To increase the enthusiasm of the general public again, she lacked only one opponent of her measure. Swiatek could have been the one. Moreover, for the 2022 season, which she started in 9th place, she had prepared for her Australian rival. “I’ve always admired Ash (Barty), and I still admire her,” she said at a news conference in Miami, a few days after the surprise retreat of the Aussie. “I would have liked to have beaten her, it would have been something special for me.”

Iga Swiatek, who leads the latest WTA rankings ,during an exhibition match in support of Ukraine in Poland
Iga Swiatek, who leads the latest WTA rankings, during an exhibition match in support of Ukraine in Poland Image Credit: AI/ Reuters/ Panoramic

“I even spent two weeks of my pre-season training against slices (backhand, one of Ash Barty’s strengths and a rare shot on the WTA Tour),” she added. “But there are plenty of other very strong players, we’re not going to be bored.” Despite all these other very strong players, the Warsaw woman reigned supreme. Between her successful debut in Doha on February 22 and her loss to Alize Cornet in the third round of Wimbledon on July 2, she racked up 37 consecutive victories. Enough to lift six trophies – Roland-Garros, four WTA 1000s, one WTA 500 – while inflicting sixteen 6-0 sets and dropping only seven sets.

When Borg retired, I felt an emptiness and lost a little bit of my motivation and intensity.

Jonhn McEnroe

“Honestly, I think it would have been much, much harder to win these tournaments if she (Ash Barty) had been there,” she said in Rome after her fourth straight title. “When she retired, I had the deep belief that she had the best tennis on the circuit. She was the one I admired the most. She gave me a lot of motivation to analyze my game and become better. Yes, I miss her, because I loved watching her play and seeing how much stronger she was always stronger than her opponents mentally.” In competition, Swiatek crossed paths with Barty twice. On hard courts in Adelaide at the beginning of the year, and on clay in Madrid in 2021

The Result: two defeats. 6-2, 6-4 in Australia, and 7-5, 6-4 in Madrid, in a highly anticipated clash that then opposed the most recent two winners of Roland-Garros. Swiatek, who is coached Tomasz Wiktorowski – former mentor of her compatriot Agnieszka Radwanska – since December 2021, had set herself a goal to continue her progression: to bring down Barty.

“I wanted to be able to beat her, it was really a motivation,” she revealed in Miami. Nadal, Federer and Djokovic have said it many times, they have pushed each other to become better, to continue to work, to improve month after month to give themselves the means to stay at the top. When Borg flew to other skies, McEnroe felt “like a void” and admitted that had “lost a little bit of my motivation and intensity.”

Without an antagonist capable of challenging her in the long term, Swiatek would risk losing some of that inner fire necessary to stay at the top for a very long time. This is what happened to Barty once her ultimate goal was achieved. “Winning Wimbledon had always been my biggest dream in tennis,” she said while announcing her retirement. “Achieving this changed my outlook. After Wimbledon (2021), I felt it in the depths of my being. There was just a small part of me left that wasn’t totally satisfied yet, there was the challenge of winning the Australian Open (won in 2022). It was the perfect way for me to celebrate my adventure in tennis. (…) I no longer have the physical and emotional motivations to ‘challenge’ myself at the highest level.”

A legend is not written alone

For the sake of women’s tennis, the sporting interest as a spectator and Swiatek’s progression, Barty’s retirement is a personal regret. But the Pole is still very young. New rivals could emerge in the years to come. Others could return to their best levels; Naomi Osaka, managing to get her head back in the right place, Bianca Andreescu, if her body left her alone. And, who knows, maybe Barty will have the itch again.

In September 2014, at the age of 18, she stopped for the first time before returning a little less than two years later, to reach paradise by making her competitors live a hell. In case of a new return – let me dream!! – maybe she will have enough answers for Iga Swiatek. The two women with three Majors each would then find someone to talk to, to push themselves to win several more Grand Slam titles and enter another dimension. The one where, looking at their careers, they could say to themselves: “I am a legend”.

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