The Queensland native surprised her contemporaries with the announcement. It takes a lot of energy, skill, discipline and talent physically and mentally to compete at the highest level of any sport and Barty explained that she feels she no longer has what it takes to do that.
“I know how much it takes to bring the best out of yourself… I don’t have that in me anymore.
“I don’t have the physical drive, the emotional want and everything it takes to challenge yourself at the very top level anymore. I am spent,” she said in the emotional announcement.
Ashleigh Barty, world number one. Credit: Getty
It is a mature but uncommon realisation to make and maybe not something that’s talked about often in elite sport, the toll it takes to perform at the highest level for an extended period of time. Perhaps it makes the careers of athletes who do go on for many years all the more impressive.
Nevertheless, it does bring an interesting question to mind, what reasons could there be for an athlete at the top of their game to call it quits prematurely?
Chase Other Dreams
To borrow a phrase from Barty’s farewell to the game of tennis, there is much more to an athlete’s life than the sport they play and there are indeed other dreams to chase. They are human, after all. Naturally, they will have other aspirations and desires beyond competing for silverware. And this can be true of even the most famous and revered athletes of all time.
You need only rewind to October of 1993 for one of the most famous early retirements in the sporting world. Michael Jordan, the best basketball player at the time, coming off of his third consecutive NBA title, sent shockwaves through the basketball community when he announced he would be stepping away from the game of basketball, a game that he played a pivotal role in bringing to a global audience both during and after the 1992 Olympics in Barcelona, as a leading member of the Dream Team.
The announcement, Jordan said, came largely due to the murder of his father, James, three months earlier. Jordan played baseball as a child in addition to basketball. Baseball was the sport of his father’s heart and, to honour him in his death, Jordan decided to take up the bat once more, signing for the then-Minor League Baseball team, the Chicago White Sox.
Jordan playing for the White Sox. Credit: Focus On Sport
Jordan would of course return to the game of basketball in 1995 and win three more championships with the Chicago Bulls, solidifying his name as one of the greatest to ever play the sport.
Winning All There is to Win
Another element to Barty announcing her departure from tennis was the level of success she had already enjoyed. She had held the title of world number one since June 2019 and when she claimed her one and only Wimbledon title in the summer of 2021, she had already achieved her ‘one true dream’.
Some may argue that in order to be talked about amongst the greatest that tennis has seen, she would have had to win more than she had. But clearly, for Barty, she felt that she had done everything she felt could in the sport.
There is a lot to be said for going out on top. Infamous boxer Floyd Mayweather retired multiple times throughout his career. However, just before his latest in 2017, he beat UFC fighter turned one-time boxer, Conor McGregor. The win brought his professional boxing record to a nice, round 50-0. Though the merit of some of his victories and the difficulty of some of his opponents have been called into question, an undefeated record in 50 fights still makes for impressive reading.
Conor McGregor and Floyd Mayweather fighting in 2017. Credit: Sports Illustrated.
Closer to home, former Dublin senior football, Jack McCaffrey is another example of an athlete quitting while they’re ahead. McCaffrey burst onto the scene as a pacey wing-back that was just as dangerous going forward as he was going back. In just seven years with the senior panel, he amassed a medal haul that included six Leinster titles, five All-Irelands, and three National Football Leagues, as well four All-Star nods and a Footballer of the Year award in 2015.
However, McCaffrey was training to be and eventually became a fully-fledged doctor alongside the intense training and playing schedule of an inter-county footballer. With Dublin making late runs in the All-Ireland championships in pretty much every year of his involvement, something was bound to give. It did, finally, in 2019. In the aftermath of their replay victory over Kerry, McCaffrey described the original final as the game that ‘broke me’. He stepped away from the panel before the 2020 championship, at the age of just 26, and still with one of the most decorated careers of all time.
Jack McCaffrey after final success in 2019. Credit: Sky Sports.
One of the most common causes of early retirement for athletes is one or even multiple injuries where their bodies just cannot keep up with the demands of elite sport. One of Barty’s predecessors as a world number one, Justine Henin, retired initially in 2008, while still number one. Exhausted from performing at the highest level, she retired abruptly.
However, just a year and a half later, it was rumoured Henin was to make a comeback to tennis and did in 2010. However, despite some success, she was forced to retire at the beginning of January 2011 due to the aggravation of an elbow injury she had sustained at the previous year’s Wimbledon.
Justine Henin. Credit: Sky Sports.
Dean Ashton is another unfortunate example of forced retirement. The Swindon man had enjoyed good success in his early footballing career with Norwich City and West Ham United. Good form playing for the latter even earned him a call-up to the England national team in 2006. What should have been a blessing very quickly turned into a curse for Ashton.
In a training match, before he had even made his debut for England, he suffered a bad tackle from teammate Shaun Wright-Phillips that resulted in Ashton breaking his ankle. He would go on to miss the 2006/07 season. Ashton did return to the pitch and even earned himself a sole cap for England in 2008. However, he never fully recovered and in late 2009, he announced his retirement from professional football, aged just 26.
Dean Ashton. Credit: These Football Times.
Falling Out of Love With the Game
A more common occurrence than one might think. But if you look at it logically, you might be surprised that it doesn’t happen more. Think about it, committing yourself to one activity, one job for 10, 15, 20 years? It will take its toll. And while most athletes do what they do because they love it, fatigue can still set in regardless.
Falling out of love with the game can happen for many reasons. While Ashleigh Barty still loves tennis, the tour schedule and constant travel that comes with it was enough to quit at 25, to spend more time with family.
Loneliness is inherent amongst athletes competing at the top level. André Schürrle is another prime example of that. A Premier League and World Cup champion by the age of just 26, Schürrle was having a career most other footballers would be envious of. And yet, in July 2020, the German international announced his retirement, aged just 29, citing the loneliness and endless competition that comes with playing football.
André Schürrle. Credit: Bundesliga.
A big defeat can be a huge reason for an athlete to call it quits. Admittedly he is still driving for the 2022 season, but Lewis Hamilton came very close to walking away from Formula 1 over the winter after his controversial, to say the least, defeat in the 2021 championship in Abu Dhabi last November. Hamilton took a long hiatus from the public eye and social media with many speculating that the manner of his defeat had left a sour taste in his mouth, causing him to lose faith in the competitive nature of the sport. Alas, Hamilton returned for pre-season testing and by all accounts is as motivated as ever to win a record eighth world championship.
Lewis Hamilton in the aftermath of Abu Dhabi 2021. Credit: Autosport.
There are many more reasons that have been given over the years by athletes who have retired early. Regardless of what they’re reasoning is, it is important to remember that they, like everyone else, are human, with their own lives to live alongside their professions. Even if their competing is entertaining for a large audience, it is not their sole purpose in life, and that needs to be respected.
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