AUSTRALIAN OPEN 2023: Ash Barty still in news, not on court

BRISBANE, Australia (AP) — Ash Barty finished 2022 the way she started it — in the spotlight.

There will be no Barty Party at Melbourne Park this time around, though, because it’s been 10 months since she retired at age 25 while the No. 1-ranked woman in tennis.

When the Australian Open gets started next week, Barty won’t be defending the title she won last January for her third Grand Slam trophy to become the first player from the host country to win the tournament in 44 years. Indeed, as she just made clear via social media, Barty has more important things on her mind: She and her new husband are expecting a baby.

And although the history of her sport is filled with examples of players leaving, then returning to the tour — something she herself did as a teenager — the 26-year-old Barty says she has no plans to make a comeback.

“In my mind, there was never going to be a perfect ending, but it was my perfect ending,” Barty said recently. “It was never about finishing on a win or on a really high emotional feeling. It was just about: Collectively, I felt it was right. Now (that decision) has led to nine months of just an incredible life off the court. It’s been amazing.”

She has managed to keep busy. And she certainly still counts as something of a celebrity in Australia, where tennis is a big deal.

After her victory at the Australian Open in 2022 without dropping a set, Barty confided in former doubles partner Casey Dellacqua that she planned to walk away.

“I don’t have the physical drive, the emotional want and everything it takes to challenge yourself at the very top of the level any more. I am spent,” Barty said she told Dellacqua before making the announcement that shocked everyone except a few close friends and family.

Barty recounted that conversation last month while receiving The Don Award, named for Australia’s most accomplished and famous sportsperson, cricket player Don Bradman. The Sport Australia Hall of Fame honor goes to an athlete or team that “provided the most inspiration to the country through performance and example in the past year.”

Four days later, Barty added her fifth John Newcombe Medal — named after Australian seven-time Grand Slam singles winner John Newcombe — for being her nation’s top tennis player of the year.

Thinking back to last year’s Australian Open during a television interview, Barty called it “certainly my most enjoyable” appearance there “because it felt free.”

“I played without consequence. I played like a little kid. In my eyes, there was no pressure,” she explained. “It was just about me trying to redeem myself, in a way, and playing how I’d always wanted to play — go out there and play like the kid that fell in love with sport.”

A bonus at Rod Laver Arena on the day Barty won the Australian Open: the participation at the trophy ceremony of her mentor and friend, seven-time Grand Slam singles champion Evonne Goolagong Cawley.

Goolagong Cawley and her husband, Roger Cawley, were secretly flown to Melbourne by private jet from their home in Queensland state to surprise Barty — win or lose. To keep the subterfuge going, Goolagong didn’t watch the final in premium seating courtside, but instead on a TV in a small room off tournament director Craig Tiley’s office.

“I was as thrilled to be there as Ash was to have won,” Goolagong Cawley said in an interview.

“But all the way through, I just sort of had this feeling that: Ash’s going to win. This was her time,” she continued. “We’re both very proud. I’m a Wiradjuri woman from New South Wales (state) and she’s a very proud Aboriginal also, and so what a way to celebrate.”

Not surprisingly, Barty — who won the French Open in 2019 and Wimbledon in 2021 — hasn’t exactly been just lounging around since.

Media reports said she used some of her $24 million prize money and endorsements to help her parents pay off home mortgages in Brisbane. She worked on a series of children’s books. Her autobiography, “My Dream Time,” was released several months ago in Australia and comes out in the United States this week. Barty plans to start a youth foundation focused on sports and education. She might open an elite tennis academy.

There’s more: Barty married golf pro Garry Kissick in late July, and she said last week they’re preparing for what she called the “new adventure” of expanding their family.

Barty competed in cricket during a hiatus from tennis nearly a decade ago, and she’s been honing her golf game.

But she denies that she wants to try to qualify for the LPGA Tour.

“I love sport. I’m a sport nut, like a lot of Australians are. I’ll be lured to it,” she said. “I have always been an athlete in the sense of trying different things, but we’ll see how we go.”

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