Few sports have underlined their unimportance during the pandemic quite like tennis did in early October. As Roland Garros edged deeper into its first week, the top seed and tournament favourite , Simona Halep, was soaring. She ground through points, pumped her fist to the skies and demolished Amanda Anisimova to reach the fourth round. At that exact same moment 10,300 miles away in Queensland, Australia, the world No 1 and defending champion, Ashleigh Barty, was also on television, also pumping her fist. But in her playing hand was a cool pint of beer, not a tennis racket.
The last time Barty played competitively was at the Qatar Total Open in February, eight months ago. She decided initially to remain at home because of travel concerns stemming from Covid-19 but, as Australia grappled with the pandemic, the closed state borders meant she was unable to train with her coach, Craig Tyzzer. She chose not to defend her Paris title.
In lieu of competing, it seems Barty has decided to enjoy herself at home. On that day during the French Open, she watched her AFL team, Richmond, beat Brisbane Lions and she was present a week later when they reached the grand final. She has become part of the show, the constant camera shots of her in the crowd a source of bemusement for some. On Saturday she will present the trophy to Richmond if they win the grand final. Aside from attending AFL games, Barty has also been busy winning an amateur golf championship.
Barty’s decision not to travel around the tour has been mirrored by her compatriots Nick Kyrgios and Sam Stosur but it also seems personal. Her career has been a tale of learning to balance the demands of playing professionally with the simple act of living, underlined by her early struggles to deal with the pressure and loneliness of her profession. Eventually she stepped away for two years to address her depression, not knowing if she would return.
Many players manage their careers based on the suggestion that if they are not practising, playing tournaments or constantly working, somewhere around the world a rival will take advantage. The lessons Barty learned from her time off have led her to look at the sport differently. The last time she was seen in competition at home, she missed out on the Australian Open final after losing in two sets against Sofia Kenin, a defeat that seemed a desperate missed opportunity at the time but has aged handsomely with the hindsight of Kenin’s enduring success.
Barty appeared at her post‑match press conference holding her 11‑month‑old niece, Olivia, and her message was clear: there are things more important in her life than winning tennis matches. People did not like it. By the end of the day, headlines around the world suggested she had used her niece as a shield to avoid difficult questions.
Since she returned to the sport in 2016, Barty has consistently made it clear tennis will never govern her life. Even last year when she rose from 15th to No 1, she played only 15 tour events and returned home as much as she could. After a long stay in Europe during her Roland Garros title run, she did not touch a racket for two weeks. That decision may have cost her a deeper run at the US Open but certainly not her sanity. This time, faced with the choice of travelling around the tour or remaining at home, she seems to have welcomed the chance to take a beat. The pandemic will not end at the turn of the new year and she will eventually have to decide when is suitable for her to travel again, but when she does she will not have forgotten how to play.
As most of her top rivals close off their season this week in Ostrava, Barty will see out 2020 ranked No 1 for the second consecutive season. After the tour was suspended in March, the 52-week ranking system was amended so that players could retain points garnered since March 2019. Barty has spent 46 weeks at No 1 and unless the ranking system changes again she will remain there for at least another 15 weeks until the end of the Australian Open.
By February she will have spent three times longer at the summit than Maria Sharapova and Kim Clijsters, six times more than Venus Williams. She is racking up hall of fame achievements without so much as lifting a finger. At first glance it seems quite silly, but it is an appropriate ending to a year that will never be repeated.