A Hours after Elena Rybakina lifted the famous Wimbledon trophy on Center Court, an intriguing bet was placed at another cathedral of British sport, 500 miles away. Two sizes were involved in their respective fields, Kevin Pietersen and Ash Barty, and a friendly disagreement over whether the former world No. 1 could still be lured back to tennis following his retirement in March. The former England cricket captain was adamant it would eventually happen. Barty was equally adamant that there was no chance. And so a £20 bet was struck between the pair on Saturday night at St Andrews.
But if the experience of watching Barty over the years has taught us anything, it’s that the most straight-forward shooter in the sport says what she means and rarely loses – whatever the stakes. And in her first big interview since he quit tennis At the peak of her powers at the age of 25, the former first lady of the sport makes it clear that she is not for gymnastics. Not when she’s having the time of her life traveling the world, playing golf, and constantly checking items off her bucket list.
“I don’t regret my resignation,” she says. “Not one. I knew it was the right time for me. It was what I wanted to do. And I know a lot of people might still not get it. But I hope they respect that in the sense that that it was my choice. And yes, it was incredible. It was everything I ever wanted.”
Her enthusiasm for her new path in life was evident in her decisions over the past weekend. Instead of watching the Wimbledon men’s and women’s finals, she honed her golf game before playing the Old Course at St Andrews for a celebrity invitation to celebrate 150th open, it starts on Thursday. Why hold on to the past when the future offers such limitless possibilities?
“I didn’t see this year’s Wimbledon final,” she says. “Sorry to disappoint you. Obviously I got diapered Ons and Elena, who are both brilliant girls. And of course it was great to see Nick, who I’ve known for over a dozen years, reach the finals.
“But since I’ve retired I’ve probably watched as many games as I did when I played, which was thin to none. Occasionally we turned it on as background noise, but it’s very rare that I sit down and watch a game from start to finish with interest. I’ve hit enough tennis balls in my life. I don’t need to see other people beating them too.”
When photos from their game at St Andrews went viral on Sunday, the internet’s excitability went into high gear, with some people even speculating that Barty – who has a four handicap – could be considering a career in a third professional sport after tennis and cricket. That, she clarifies, will not happen.
“Golf is a hobby and always will be,” she says. “I know what it takes to get to the top in any sport and I have no desire or desire to do the work required. And to be honest, I play golf to have a good time and go for a walk with people I love. I don’t care if I shoot a 70 or a 100.”
But what about reports that she’s already won a local tournament in Brisbane since giving up her racquet? She starts laughing. “The internet has gone wild in this regard. It was just a Saturday competition at home. I play it every week. I don’t win every week and when I do it’s a rarity. It’s just a very relaxed event with my girlfriends and my mother!”
However, her love of the game is evident as she recounts in hushed tones what it was like to be on the first tee at St Andrews. “It was a real pinch moment to play in championship conditions in the home of golf. I made some good pars, hit some good drives and also hit some wild shots that went into areas of the golf course that you’ve probably never seen on TV before. It was just an incredible experience.”
A particular highlight was saving par on the opening hole after flirting with the famous Swilcan Burn who guards the first green. “I hit a horrible second shot – a bit like a skull with an eight iron – and it went into the little burn and burst out again. And I managed to chip and save par. So I got a bit lucky along the way, but I finished about six, so it wasn’t too bad.
She also spent time watching Tiger Woods and Justin Thomas practice, recording how other legends add a final layer of gloss to their preparations. “It’s incredible to see these guys doing their thing,” she says. “I love seeing how other professional athletes prepare and train, how they understand their game and the areas they are working on.”
Did you catch a word quickly? “No, no, no,” she replies quickly. “I walked out of their way to give them the space they need, knowing this is heading for a big event.”
It’s the nature of professional sports that it continues to evolve, even when someone as compelling and popular as Barty retires. But her decision to walk away added Australian Open 2022 to their titles at Wimbledon 2021 and the French Open 2019 was a mic drop that still leaves deep reverberations.
At the time, Barty’s dominance of women’s soccer was such that she was ranked the No. 1 WTA player for 114 straight weeks – a run surpassed only by Steffi Graf, Serena Williams and Martina Navratilova. But it was her relationship skills that helped her strike an even deeper chord with the general public. That, says Barty, hasn’t changed, even when she slipped into happy anonymity. “I like to think I’m approachable. I’m just a normal person that people can come up to and say ‘G’day’ and chat with.”
So is there anything she misses in tennis? “I definitely miss seeing my buddies. We’ve spent so much time together and suddenly I’m living in a different corner of the world. But retirement has been a truly seamless transition. Instead of spending a few hours at the practice site every day, I just get into different routines. And because I knew it was coming for quite a while, there wasn’t much of an adjustment.”
But she insists the future of tennis remains in good hands, particularly with world No. 1 Iga Swiatek, who is leading a new generation of young stars that also includes Britain’s Emma Raducanu and now Rybakina. “Iga is an incredible talent, an extraordinary person and a lovely girl,” says Barty. “I love her and her team and I couldn’t be prouder that she took the No. 1 position because she plays the sport the right way and has so much energy and charisma.
“But the depth in women’s tennis is also great at the moment. We’ve gone from one or two dominant players to greater unpredictability. And it’s not because the tour is weak. In fact, it’s because the Tour is so strong. Everyone in this top 40-50 group is so exceptionally good they could all be top 10 players week in and week out.”
In recent months, Barty has been working on a series of illustrated children’s books, Little Ash, about school, sports, friendship and family; and a memoir, My Dream Time: A Memoir of tennis and teamwork. She has also played golf with Michael Phelps in New Jersey and plans to compete in many other sporting events in the coming months – starting with the Open.
“I have the opportunity to achieve childhood dreams and I couldn’t be more grateful,” she says. “I’m just trying to roll with it and enjoy it.”
It sounds like Pietersen has a tremendous chance of losing that retirement bet, I say. “The bet was very friendly and very soft,” she says, laughing. “I’ll make sure KP and I have a little more time on the golf course. And maybe instead of investing a little £20 in my tennis career, we’ll invest that instead.”