Ash Barty And The Message Of Ultimate Empowerment

When Bjorn Borg stepped away from tennis in 1982 and officially retired from the sport in 1983, he was in his physical prime, in his mid-20s. 

The abrupt end to a hugely successful career is the first historical event which comes to mind when contemplating the bombshell news that Ash Barty, 25, is retiring from the sport of tennis. 

Yet, as most older tennis fans – and tennis journalists and commentators – know well, Borg’s decision came from a dark place, when he was wrestling with demons and burdened by the sport in an unhealthy way. Borg’s move was less a choice and more a necessity. The Swedish icon was trying to survive more than anything else. It wasn’t a declaration of freedom; it was an escape. 

While the details surrounding Ash Barty’s decision aren’t known in full and will emerge in the course of time, it seems that the most ascendant and celebrated Australian athlete in modern times is not stepping away from tennis because she doesn’t like the sport or is in some way haunted or drained the way Borg was 40 years ago. 

She released an initial announcement on Instagram which expressed gratitude for her career and that she had managed to “leave feeling proud and fulfilled.” 

It’s a happy exit, not a burdened one. 

RELATED: Ash Barty's Once In A Lifetime Achievement

It’s not what anyone would expect. It’s not the normal way of doing things. It’s not conventional. It’s not what the culture of sports and commercial success promotes and encourages in global stars. 

As a priest I admired once said in an Easter Sunday sermon, “Different is not bad.” That simple statement is something all of us can reflect on and derive meaning from in this extraordinary moment. 

The broader forces of culture are hard to resist. We can see how the country in which we live and the circumstances of our lives shape our decisions. Sure, many of us are free to choose what we do for a living, and if we’re lucky, we have substantial freedom if making that choice. Yet, for a great many people, free choice isn’t as free as it might seem. 

Peer pressure, parental pressure, and cultural pressure lead millions of people in various nations into a life situation where, entering university or young adulthood (or both), the path is either law school, medical school, engineering, or politics. In past centuries, Europeans either went into the priesthood/nunnery or the nobility or one of a select few other options. 

Being able to freely choose one’s life path is something which has not existed for most of the human beings who have ever lived. Casting aside the limits on choices for those who have money, life is ever more limited for those who don’t have money. Poverty and oppression are supreme limitations for millions upon millions of people. 

If ostensibly free people still feel emotionally or situationally trapped (and many around the globe are), so many more people aren’t even ostensibly free. They come to a point in life where they know how limited their existence is.  

RELATED: This Must Be The Place- Ash Barty Can Now Call Wimbledon Home

Being a truly free person, where one has the authentic and genuinely unencumbered ability to chart one’s course in life, is not something many people have.  

While I and millions of others around the globe will miss Ash Barty’s beautiful, classic tennis and her elegant, old-school style – a game which catapulted her to the Wimbledon heights enjoyed by her idol, Evonne Goolagong, and made her a national treasure when she won her home-nation championship at the Australian Open earlier this year – my first reaction to this stunning event is more happy than sad. 

Why? Ash Barty, who stepped away from tennis once to try her hand at cricket, and who now is set for life financially and has won majors on all three surfaces, thereby having little to prove beyond maintaining her place in tennis, has given the world the powerful example that one doesn’t have to spend 15 years playing sports. 

There’s nothing wrong with playing sports for 15 years, mind you, but there’s no law or cultural penalty for stepping away early, proud and fulfilled. 

I can’t wait to see what Ash Barty does with her talent, creativity, positive energy, and unconventional thought process. We all get only one life, and Ash Barty – having clearly mastered how to play the sport of tennis – wants to master something else. 

I can’t shake the sense that Barty’s 2021 tennis season, spent in airports and hotels and not primarily in Australia, gave her this pandemic-based awareness of how challenging a tennis life can be. It certainly required her total attention and focus. When she went home after the 2021 U.S. Open, refreshed herself mentally, and then rolled through the field to win the Australian Open, it was as though she had already passed every supreme test she needed to pass in order to tell herself that she had squeezed all the potential out of her body that she could as a tennis player. 

Now Ash Barty will try to squeeze every last ounce of potential out of her soul and mind as a human being, something much greater than a champion athlete. 

Ash Barty is telling all of us there’s more to life than sports success, or winning one more tournament and pulling down one more paycheck. 

Sure, Ash Barty has enough money to make that choice, but it’s nevertheless remarkable that she is going down this road less traveled. It is a message which says that every life is our own and uniquely precious to us, the individual living this journey. 

No one else, and no outside cultural forces, should dictate our choices to us if we can do something different and want to spend our life doing something else. 

That is a message of ultimate empowerment. 

Ash Barty, very possibly changed by the pandemic and the seismic impact it has had on the way lives are structured around the globe, is telling the whole planet that we shouldn’t feel trapped in larger structures if we can do anything to break free of them. 

What a hopeful message to accompany the end of a storied and highly significant tennis career – for Australia, yes, but also for the whole world. 

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Matt Zemek

Matt has written professionally about US College Football since 2000, and has blogged about professional Tennis since 2014. He wants the Australian Open to play Thursday night Women's Semi-Finals, and Friday evening Men's Semi-Finals. Contribute to his Patreon for exclusive content here.

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