Toast Ash Barty

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Oct 27, 2014
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Ash Barty had the strength to walk away from a promising career before she burned out

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There were all sorts of storylines from Ashleigh Barty's remarkable French Open performance to celebrate during the national #BartyParty.

Most obviously, after a nerveless 6-1 6-3 finals victory over Marketa Vondrousova that Barty rated "the perfect match", there was the sheer nerveless class of her play.

We knew the 23-year-old was very good. But on the supposedly unfavourable red clay, Barty looked multiple-majors-world-No1 good.

Then there were the human elements.

The quiet determination, the whimsically nostalgic rural Queensland childhood, the Indigenous roots and the warm humility.

As Nine Media sports columnist Greg Baum wrote, Barty is "an extraordinary ordinary Australian".

And if you are the kind of hard-bitten tennis-tanned local club doubles legend who hasn't seen a "proper player" since Lew Hoad gave it away? My God, the woman can even volley!

But beyond the bloodless execution of her first Grand Slam singles final or the charm of her down-to-earth personality, the most fascinating element of Barty's career remains the period three years ago when she put her racquets in the cupboard, rested and, briefly, swung a bat for the Brisbane Heat.




The reasons for the Barty Break, including her fear of burnout, homesickness and mental exhaustion, have been extensively covered and don't need to be further explained.

Not if you have been within a topspin lob of the fiercely competitive and horribly unforgiving world of professional tennis where unsettling travel, demanding parents/coaches, strict diets, exhausting fitness regimes and constant isolation from friends and family have long been the source of barely concealed sadness and suffering — even after the minimum age limit for female competitors was raised from 14 to 16.

Barty was merely the latest player to succumb to the tour's arduous demands and cold environment. Although she was somewhat unusual in that she had the intelligence, self-awareness and support of loved ones to step away from a potentially lucrative career before she had flamed out completely.

"It's obviously part of my life that I needed to deal with and I feel like that was the best decision that I made," Barty said after her French Open victory. "It was an even better one coming back."

Barty emphasised that she had not said, I'm never playing tennis again. "I think I needed time to grow as a person, to mature," she said.

Significantly, as one of Barty's entourage explained at the time, the Barty Break was not taken by a struggling athlete abandoning a lifestyle causing her distress, but by a highly intelligent young woman choosing to pursue the interests and be with the people who made her smile.

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The distinction is important because it raises a question for those athletes who feel crushed by the weight of the expectations created by their talent or their over ambitious coaches and families: If not this, what?

More prominent athletes than Barty had stepped away from their sports mid-career for various reasons.

Michael Jordan stopped being the best basketballer ever for a year and fulfilled a childhood ambition to play professional baseball (although there are still some whispers about the supposed "real reason" for MJ's season in the minor leagues). Geelong champion Gary Ablett Snr put down the Sherrin and picked up a Bible.

Then there are the thousands of other less-well-known athletes across all sports who have given their game away and never returned — at least not in Barty's triumphant fashion.

Given Barty found happiness in a team environment it is irresistible not to ask if basketball-loving Nick Kyrgios might benefit more from a season with an NBL club than yet more months spent wrestling with a game he claims he does not particularly enjoy.

Again, however, you have to ask what someone leaving the game is walking to, not just what they are leaving and, most significantly, how much support they will have after they have flown their gilded coop.

In Barty's case, there was the love of parents Josie and Robert, who put their youngest daughter's welfare ahead of the vast wealth her talent could create. How many parents on the tennis circuit have that perspective?

And now for the bad news for those of you in all walks of life who think a Barty Break might reinvigorate your career, spare you from the drudgery of day-to-day life or even a revive a strained relationship — precious few of us have the sheer ability, willpower and mental toughness Barty drew upon when she got the racquets out of the cupboard.

Perhaps instead of making the Barty Break synonymous with high achievement, perhaps we should make it about the decision to walk away from an unhappy circumstance toward something we love and return being the best we can be.

So take a Barty Break and come back feeling like a champion.

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