5 things we learned from Saudi Arabia’s successful World Cup qualification journey

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For years now, Ashleigh Barty has been a source of inspiration to many of her fellow tennis players.

“She’s the target for everyone,” Spanish world No.6 Paula Badosa said last month, likening Barty to Roger Federer in how easy they make things look on a tennis court.

Two-time major champion Garbine Muguruza said she admired Barty for being a “composed” and “solid” world No.1, while fourth-ranked Barbora Krejcikova said she looked up to the Australian in how she combined her tenacity on court with a warm and generous personality off it.

Last year when Barty defended her Miami Open title, tournament director and former world No.4 James Blake made sure the crowd knew what she was all about.

“For those that don’t know Ash, she’s one of the most humble, gracious, down-to-earth No.1 in the worlds that’s ever been around,” said Blake during the trophy ceremony. He was not wrong.

Since she won her first of three Grand Slam titles in 2019 at the French Open, Barty had gone from strength to strength, separating herself from the pack to become a dominant force on the WTA tour.

The Queenslander constantly topped the ace leaderboard and serving starts each season on the women’s tour, she devastated opponents with her brutal forehand and mystifying backhand slice, and her continuous improvement, both technically and mentally, meant her opponents were always playing catch-up.

Her peers marveled at her versatile game and high tennis IQ and many dedicated specific stretches of time trying to come up with game plans to defeat her.

During her preparation period ahead of this season, Iga Swiatek says she spent two weeks working on ways to counter Barty’s notorious backhand slice and the world No.2 was motivated by the idea of chasing her in the rankings and possibly facing off with her in important clashes.

Given how impactful Barty has been in the world of tennis, it comes as no surprise that even her decision to retire from the sport as the world No.1 at just 25 is being seen as an inspirational moment and an example to learn from.

“I really think she’s brave that she has made this decision because with all the expectations around, I mean, there is not many people who would stop at this point and put their happiness on the first place,” Swiatek told reporters in Miami on Wednesday of Barty’s shock retirement announcement.

“I think that’s an example not only for us tennis players or other athletes, but every person that they should put their own happiness first. If they are satisfied or not satisfied, they should think about their goals, not really what world thinks.

“But that’s really hard when you’re a professional athlete. That’s why I really respect that.”

Indeed, Barty’s greatest legacy will be how she marched to the beat of her own drum. When she was overwhelmed by the tour and struggled as a young teen prodigy, she walked away from tennis for two years, swapping her racket for a cricket bat before returning to the WTA circuit in 2016.

When the pandemic hit in 2020, Barty opted out of competition when the tour resumed from its five-month suspension, choosing to stay home in Australia. When she played her first tournament in 11 months at the start of the 2021 season, she won it, just like that.

She made a huge commitment in that 2021 campaign, going on the road from the beginning of March until the end of September — a stretch that saw her fulfil a childhood dream by lifting the Wimbledon trophy in July.

“I know last year was quite tough. She didn’t really go home at all. I think that certainly took a toll. But it was also really inspiring to watch how dedicated she was that entire year,” said four-time major champion Naomi Osaka on Thursday.

“I think she can leave with no regrets. That’s something I feel like she was super amazing for the sport, for me in particular. I just really loved watching her.”

Osaka described Barty’s decision to walk away from tennis at her peak as the “ideal” and “cool” while American star teenager Coco Gauff called it a “savage move.”

Serena Williams took Twitter to say she felt sad to see Barty retiring “but also happy for your new chapter. Always your fan, close up and afar. Sending all my love.”

For Barty, hanging up her racket at this stage in her career was simply her way of staying true to herself. She felt fulfilled by everything she has accomplished and knew she didn’t have it in her anymore to put in the necessary work she would expect of herself in order to keep competing on tour.

Asked what she hopes to be remembered for in the sport, Barty did not mention her results or records. Maintaining her authenticity throughout her career is what mattered to her the most.

“I just hope that everyone knows what they saw is who I am and what they got. I’ve never tried to be anyone that I’m not,” Barty said in a press conference on Thursday.

“Every time I was on the court, I gave it my all. I was fair. I competed well. No matter the result, the relationship never changed off the court. I think that was something that my parents instilled in me when I was quite young, is having that respect and having the courage to be brave and just play.

“No matter what happens, that doesn’t change anything off the court. I think as much as I’ve had the opportunity to have success in tournaments, in rankings, that’s never what was important to me. It was the experiences and the memories along the way.”

As much as the news came as a shock to many — Stefanos Tsitsipas says he was “in disbelief” as he watched the entire announcement video on Instagram — Barty’s coach Craig Tyzzer saw this decision coming and recalled how she told him, “can I retire now?” after she won her maiden Grand Slam title in Paris in 2019.

Winning Wimbledon was a huge milestone for Barty and it got her mindset closer to retirement. She made one last push during this year’s Aussie summer swing, where she became the first home singles champion at the Australian Open in 44 years. She didn’t drop a set as she marched to the title and played with such strength and composure as she etched her name once again in the history books.

“I think the Australian summer was for everyone else and not for her,” admits Tyzzer.

“I think she won the Aussie Open for everyone, not just for her and I don’t think there’s anything left in the tank for her.”

Danielle Collins, who will go down in history as the very last opponent in Barty’s professional career, sees the Queenslander’s retirement at such a young age as something to be celebrated.

“For someone to retire at 25, I think it really speaks to the way our sport empowers women. I think it’s just incredible for her to have achieved what she’s achieved on court, to now be able to enjoy the rest of her life,” said Collins. “I think it’s so cool being able to retire at 25. What other profession would you be able to do that in? There’s not too many. I think it’s incredible for our sport.”

Collins has a point, but Barty’s relatively early exit from the sport has also brought up questions of just how demanding tennis is and how big of a mental toll it can take on the players.

Osaka took a break from the tour last year citing mental health concerns while 21-year-old Bianca Andreescu is currently on hiatus for similar reasons.

Barty assures she feels very different stepping away from tennis now compared to her position back in 2014 when she took her first break from the sport; but she also acknowledges she is mentally and physically spent.

American world No.13 and recent Indian Wells champion Taylor Fritz, who is just one year younger than Barty, says he understands why someone so young can choose to retire from tennis.

“My mom (Kathy May) was a top-10 player. I believe she retired when she was 24 or maybe even 25. This is such a stressful sport. Having to worry about defending your points, your ranking, your sponsor, it’s so stressful, especially if you are someone who expects a lot of yourself, puts a lot of pressure on yourself,” said Fritz.

“It’s definitely very mentally draining and wearing to play the sport. I can definitely understand someone who’s accomplished a lot, done everything they probably wanted to do, being happy to call it.”

Fritz added that Barty’s fans should still hold out hope that she might miss tennis and make a second comeback later down the road.

It is a sentiment shared by many who feel Barty has plenty of time to chase other pursuits before returning to her roots.

Asked if she is closing the door completely on tennis or if she sees herself coming back in the future, Barty said with a smile: “You never say never. But it’s a long way off at this stage.”

A sliver of hope her fans will no doubt hold onto.

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