Barty’s retirement and the post-modernization of everything

Ashleigh Barty, world no.1 and defending champion of Wimbledon and Australian Open (which she won this year), retired. Yeah, you read that right. And no, it’s not April 1, I checked that for you. She really did retire. I know, right, WTF.

Barty, aged 25, won the Australian Open in front of adoring home crowds in emphatic fashion, crushing each one of her opponents in straight sets and was only moderately challenged at best by Danielle Collins in the final. Barty did so looking ice-cool and relaxed as well as being respectful towards opponents. Zero theatrics, in other words. If there was a player who looked to the manor born, in front of whom appeared to lay half a decade at least of domination, it was Barty. But we didn’t know what she was thinking.

Barty has said in her statement that she was physically done. I have no option but to believe her. But I cannot help but contrast this against the fact that she had only been playing a limited schedule anyway going back to 2019. It’s not like she ground her body to dust playing anywhere and everywhere like Graf or even peak Serena before injuries caught up and she resorted to smart scheduling.

Speaking of which, Serena Williams was thirty five and a half years old when she won her last grand slam title (the Australian Open 2017). And she was carrying. Yeah. Serena has had her own fashion clothing line for a few years now. She has also been a vocal advocate against sexism and racism. Some in tennis world, being that it’s predominantly white male dominated, would say too vocal and advocate but that’s a different discussion. It’s not much of an exaggeration to say that there would be no equal prize money without the Williams sisters.

That is, the Williams sisters have shown that it is possible to be multi-dimensional, to follow interests outside tennis and still have a long, long career. This is to present a counter-argument to the notion that Barty has chosen as she has because she is a healthy and mentally well developed person who knows life is more than tennis. I do not want to compel Barty to be like Serena; Barty can only be true to herself. But I submit that a person can be in a healthy place and still believe life is all about tennis. They are not mutually exclusive concepts.

Barty’s retirement is not to be looked at in isolation but as part of a common thread running particularly through women’s tennis. Be it Andreescu pulling out of tournaments or Osaka continuing to pursue a limited schedule even now that her ranking has caved in. Again, I don’t blame them either for not being obsessed about tennis.

My question is, simply: if even these terrific athletes aren’t so obsessed about tennis that they can’t imagine life without it at least until their body starts to give way, what happens to the pro tour such as it is?

That raises a larger question too about the role of obsession in society and particularly in two walks of life whose value is ‘merely’ intangible in a utilitarian sense but which can provide a lucrative career in monetary terms – professional sport and show business. You do not need the existence of either for the world to carry on. But if everything on this planet only existed because it absolutely needed to, is capitalism inadvertently creating an utilitarian utopia that Karl Marx would be proud of?

The other aspect here is what I addressed above – the notion of obsession anywhere and everywhere being unhealthy (any resemblance to Friedman’s inflation maxim is intentional). The common counterpoint offered these days when we ask why a player wouldn’t want to aim higher, win more titles, more slams is that these are just numbers that matter to fans and don’t mean anything. Sure, that is irrefutable indeed. But again, if no player cares madly enough about these milestones, what happens to the tour? What happens to a tour where everyone is already dispelled of the illusion?

And this is where post-modernization kicks in. If everything is relative and nothing inherently has any meaning, then the only thing that matters is what it means to you. And would not the bank balance reign supreme in such a scenario? If things like legacy don’t count anyway and are to be waved away as irrelevant in the larger scheme of things, the only thing that matters is if you have already made enough to retire comfortably.

I mentioned show business earlier. Amitabh Bachchan is still acting in films despite him having nothing left to prove for a long, long time. Ilayaraja and Rahman are still composing. And this is a global trend. Pat Metheny is still performing shows. Antony Hopkins is still acting. And lest I appear to leave out the women, so is Helen Mirren. On the other hand, Don’t Look Up was Jennifer Lawrence’s first acting credit since Dark Phoenix and she has been acting in very few films post-2016 as such. Gosling’s career too has somewhat stalled.

So…it may be an illusion to believe that sporting achievements matter or making a great film or a great piece of music matters. But forgive me for saying this is a more beautiful illusion than the one that pretends there are weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, that Ukraine is a fake country, so on and so forth. The joy that sports and art can give us is pure and unadulterated for that reason. Because we love it in spite of the fact that it has no ‘utility’. We know this and we don’t care because what it can give to us is beyond the understanding of economic theory.

But what happens if the performers themselves struggle to keep up the illusion? I don’t know, your guess is as good as mine. This feels like a very new thing, very unchartered territory. I am hoping already that Iga Swiatek will be different and will seek out longevity for the sake of it.

But I recognize that my hope is somewhat like Joe Biden saying on the campaign that he wanted to bring back the soul of America. Do you bring back anything in this world?

2 Responses to “Barty’s retirement and the post-modernization of everything”

  1. Rishi Says:

    Interesting article and I agree. It’s a shame Barty retired right when Swiatek seems to have improved her game a notch. Would have been interesting to see that rivalry. Right now it looks like Iga is far ahead of the tour and the question is who can be her rival.

    • Madan Says:

      Thanks and yes, I am going to miss that rivalry too. Ash pretty much manhandled Swiatek at Adelaide but the latter has really hit upon a rich vein of form in the last month or so. It’s up to the others to step up now but Swiatek with her combination of offence, defence and movement is going to be hard to beat for her more error-prone rivals.

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