A Hours after Elena Rybakina lifted the famous Wimbledon trophy on center court, an intriguing bet has been placed at another cathedral of British sport, 500 miles away. It involved two big names in their respective fields, Kevin Pietersen and Ash Barty, and a friendly disagreement over whether the former world No. 1 might still be drawn to tennis after her shock retirement in March. The former England cricket captain was confident it would eventually happen. Barty was equally adamant that there was no chance. And so on Saturday night at St Andrews, a £20 bet was struck between the pair.
But if the experience of watching Barty over the years has taught us anything, it’s that the straightest shooter in the sport says what she means and rarely loses — no matter what the stakes. And, in her first major interview since quitting tennis at the age of 25, the former sport’s first lady made it clear she wasn’t for the shoot. Not when she’s having the best time of her life traveling the world, playing golf, and regularly checking off items on her to-do list.
“I don’t regret retiring,” 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 still might not understand that. But I hope they respect that. in the sense that it was my decision. And yeah, it’s been amazing. That’s all I ever wanted.
Her enthusiasm for her new life path was evident in her choices last weekend. Instead of watching the Wimbledon women’s and men’s singles finals, she honed her golf game before playing at the Old Course in St Andrews as part of a celebrity invitational event to mark the 150th Open, which kicks off Thursday. Why cling to the past when the future offers such limitless opportunities?
“I haven’t watched the Wimbledon final this year,” she said. “Sorry to disappoint. Obviously I was in love with Ons and Elena, who are both brilliant girls. And obviously it was great to see Nick, who I’ve known for over a dozen years, go finally.
“But since I retired I’ve probably watched as many games as I did when I was playing, which was slim to none. Every once in a while we’ll have it as background noise, but it’s very Rarely do I sit down and watch a match from start to finish with any interest. I’ve hit enough tennis balls in my life. I don’t need to see other people hit them too.
When photographs of her playing at St Andrews went viral on Sunday, the internet’s most excited went into overdrive, with some people even speculating that Barty – who has a handicap of four – might be considering a career in a third professional sport, after tennis. and cricket. That, she says, will not happen.
“Golf is a hobby and always will be,” she says. “I know what it takes to get to the top of any sport, and I don’t have the desire or the drive to do the work required. And to be honest, I play golf to have a good time and hang out with people I love. Whether I shoot a 70 or a 100, it doesn’t matter to me.
But what about the reports that she has already won a local tournament in Brisbane since hanging up her racquet? She begins to laugh. “The internet went wild over that one. 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 casual event with my girlfriends and my mom!
Yet her love of the game is evident as she whispers what it was like to stand on the first tee at St Andrews. “It was a real fun time playing the birthplace of golf in championship conditions. I made some good pars, hit some good drives and also landed a few wild shots that went into areas of the golf course that you’ve probably never seen on TV before. It was just an amazing experience.
A particular highlight was saving par on the opening hole after flirting with famed Swilcan Burn guarding the first green. “I hit a horrible second shot – a bit of a skull with an eight iron – and he went in the little burn and came out again. And I managed to chip and save the normal. So I got a little lucky along the way, but I finished about six times, so it wasn’t too bad.
She also spent time watching Tiger Woods and Justin Thomas train, absorbing how other legends apply a final coat of gloss to their preparations. “It’s amazing 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 what areas they work on.”
Did you take a quick word? “No, no, no,” she replies quickly. “I stayed away to give them the space they need, knowing it leads to a big event.”
It’s the nature of professional sports that it evolves, even when someone as compelling and popular as Barty retires. But his decision to walk away, having added the 2022 Australian Open to his 2021 Wimbledon and 2019 French Open titles, was a mic drop that still leaves a deep reverberation.
Such was Barty’s dominance of the women’s game at the time, she had been ranked No. 1 in the WTA for 114 consecutive weeks – a run bettered only by Steffi Graf, Serena Williams and Martina Navratilova. But it was her relativity that helped her strike an even deeper chord with the general public. That, Barty says, hasn’t changed even as she slips into blissful anonymity. “I like to think I’m approachable. I’m just a regular person that people can come and say ‘G’day’ to and chat.
So, is there something missing in tennis? “I really miss seeing my friends. We’ve spent so much time together and all of a sudden I’m living in another corner of the globe. But retirement has been a really seamless transition. Instead of spending a few hours on the training ground every day, I get into different routines. And because I knew it was going to happen for quite a while, there wasn’t much adjustment.
However, she insists the future of tennis remains in good hands, especially with world number 1 Iga Swiatek leading a new generation of young stars which includes Britain’s Emma Raducanu and now Rybakina . “Iga is an incredible talent, an exceptional human and a lovely girl,” Barty said. “I love her and her team and couldn’t be prouder that she took the #1 spot because she plays the sport the right way and has so much energy and charisma.
“But the depth of women’s tennis right now is also great. We’ve gone from being one or two dominant players to being more unpredictable. And it’s not because the tour is weak. In fact, it’s because that the tour is so strong, everyone in that top 40-50 bracket is so exceptionally good that week in and week out, they could all be top 10 players.
For the past few months, Barty has been working on a series of illustrated children’s books, Little Ash, about school, sports, friendship and family; as well as a memoir, My Dream Time: A Memoir of Tennis and Teamwork. She also golfed with Michael Phelps in New Jersey and plans to compete in many more sporting events in the coming months, starting with the Open.
“I have the opportunity to fulfill my childhood dreams and I couldn’t be more grateful,” she says. “I just try to ride with it and enjoy it.”
It looks like Pietersen is a huge chance to lose that retirement bet, I say. “The bet was very friendly and very sweet,” she laughs. “I’m going to make sure that KP and I have more time on the golf course. And maybe instead of putting a little £20 on my tennis career, we’ll put that instead.