The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Ashleigh Barty walked away from tennis to find her way forward. Will other pros follow?

Ashleigh Barty has had an unconventional career path for a pro tennis player. (Filippo Monteforte/Agence France-Presse/Getty Images)

There are skills that are foundational to great tennis — outstanding hand-eye coordination, crisp footwork and peak physical conditioning among them.

For world No. 1 Ashleigh Barty, happiness is equally essential.

When she lost sight of hers at 18, she walked away from a promising pro career to reconnect with family, reclaim what she missed about life in Australia and, for a time, try a team sport and make friends who didn’t care whether she could hit a tennis ball by playing professional cricket.

The detour led Barty back to tennis after a nearly two-year hiatus, her hunger to compete restored. Within three years, she was a French Open champion and the world’s top player.

“I don’t even know if I’d be sitting here talking to you if I was playing tennis [and I] didn’t step away,” Barty told reporters upon winning the 2019 French Open, which vaulted her to No. 1. “I needed time to step away, to live a normal life, because this tennis life certainly isn’t normal. I think I needed time to grow as a person, to mature.”

Barty’s unconventional career path is more than a biographical footnote, though. It is a potential template for players interested in extending their careers, particularly those susceptible to burnout or overuse injuries.

Feinstein: For American men’s tennis, this is as bad as it has ever been

According to Neeru Jayanthi, director of Emory’s Tennis Medicine program, having a balance of emotional, mental and physical health is essential to quality of life for specialized, elite athletes who train intensely.

“If all those components are not optimal, then performance is sacrificed,” Jayanthi said. “So in any athlete, whether it be a professional tennis player or even a younger athlete who is susceptible and vulnerable, these type of breaks for recovery can be extremely beneficial versus complete retirement from the sport.”

Barty, 25, has taken two extended breaks from the pro tour. Last year, she chose not to return when tennis emerged from a five-month quarantine in August, opting out of the U.S. Open and not defending her French Open title.

Instead, she spent 11 months enjoying golf, playing with her nieces and nephew and training with her coach, to the extent Australian’s strict coronavirus protocols allowed. She didn’t miss a beat upon returning for the 2021 season, winning the first tournament she entered, a grass-court tune-up for the Australian Open, followed by a hard-court title at the Miami Open and a clay-court title in Stuttgart.

This week, Barty returns to Roland Garros for the first time in two years as the French Open’s top seed. She faces a tricky draw that includes a potential semifinal against 2020 champion Iga Swiatek.

Former pro Pam Shriver, who won 22 Grand Slam doubles titles in a 19-year pro career, believes Barty’s extended break earlier in her career was key in her decision to sit out most of 2020. Shriver said Barty knew she could regain her form.

“She is that good an athlete. She has such great confidence in her athleticism and timing of the ball,” noted Shriver, now an ESPN analyst.

“Maybe coaches and some agents will begin to say to players: ‘You know what? You need to step away. Take a pause. Develop your game a little differently. Heal in your head.’ She might end up really being a little bit of a pioneer on this. What’s wrong with taking a pause — if not a full year off?”

‘I kind of lost my way’

The pro tours and conventional thinking work against it.

Tennis captures its biggest headlines four times each year, when Wimbledon and the Australian, French and U.S. opens are contested. But for players, it’s a near year-round grind that crisscrosses continents and time zones from early January to late November.

Unless the move is forced by injury, taking time off midseason carries risks and often leads to anxiety — over tumbling in the rankings, being overtaken by rivals and losing a hard-earned competitive edge.

“There has always been this mind-set in tennis that, if you step off the tour for an extended period of time, it’s going to take you that much more time to get back,” said Patrick McEnroe, who played professionally from 1988 to 1998 before leading the U.S. Tennis Association’s player development program and serving as the U.S. Davis Cup captain.

That thinking is slowly shifting, he said.

“In the past few years, pre-covid and now accentuated by what happened with covid, I think players are seeing that if they keep themselves in great physical condition and stay connected to the game by practicing, a long layoff doesn’t seem to impact the players in the way we used to think it would,” McEnroe said.

The Women’s Tennis Association has been studying these issues for more than 20 years. Troubled by the early retirements of teen phenoms Jennifer Capriati, Tracy Austin and Andrea Jaeger, the WTA instituted age-eligibility rules in 1995 to limit the number of tournaments that 14- to 17-year-olds could enter. Known as the “Capriati Rule,” the goal was to limit the emotional burnout, psychological pressure and overuse issues that seemed to short-circuit promising careers.

Research on those issues continues, as does debate over the appropriate balance, particularly after Coco Gauff broke into the top 50 at 15, clearly capable of competing more. Now 17, Gauff will be seeded at a Grand Slam for the first time when the French Open gets underway; she’s ranked a career-high 25th after she won the singles and doubles titles of a clay-court tournament in Italy this month.

Like Gauff, Barty catapulted to prominence at 15 — in her case by winning Wimbledon’s junior title. With a delightfully varied game that includes a powerful forehand, a wicked slice backhand, fluency at the net and a pinpoint serve, the 5-foot-5 Barty, who started playing tennis at age 5, was touted as the next Martina Hingis and Australia’s great hope.

She also qualified for the Australian Open’s main draw at 15 and began climbing the rankings in singles and doubles, reaching three Grand Slam doubles finals with countrywoman Casey Dellacqua.

But it was obvious to her parents that she was miserable, and they supported her decision to take an indefinite break after the 2014 U.S. Open. Barty reflected on the decision in an August 2020 interview with the Australian Broadcasting Corporation.

“I was very lucky to have a lot of success, but I’m still very much a homebody, and I kind of lost my way a little bit with not being able to connect with my family,” Barty said. “We didn’t lose that love or that care, but I felt like there was a bit of a split. … I wanted to come back to my family and those who love me the most.”

Being selective

Barty wasn’t the first pro to put the brakes on a promising career. Venus and Serena Williams did so in stretches at the height of their powers, with far more at stake, only to be criticized for what was perceived as a lack of commitment. Their decisions proved prescient, Jayanthi believes.

“Serena has extended her career, [as has] Venus, by being selective about their tournaments and choosing other personal pursuits,” Jayanthi said.

Venus, who turns 41 in June, owns an interior design company. Serena, 39, has thrown herself into motherhood while launching a clothing line and raising her voice on issues of social justice.

Both are competing at this year’s French Open. Serena, seeded seventh, is seeking a record 24th major. Venus plays on unseeded, still motivated despite an energy-sapping autoimmune disorder.

“Guess what?” Jayanthi said. “When you’re personally happy, you can be professionally happy.”

Not every pro can afford the loss of income and ranking points that comes with taking a break in their careers, particularly players outside the top 50 or 100. To make it work, Shriver said, they must view it as an investment that will pay dividends later in their career — whether in terms of a fresh perspective or a change in technique.

Nor does every pro have Barty’s exceptional athleticism, which enabled her to pause her career without serious consequences.

“She did it for her own mind-set,” McEnroe said. “When she came back to tennis, she had a different appreciation for how good she is. She could have played tiddlywinks in between and still come back at the exact same level.”