Going out on a high note is an understatement for retiring tennis world-number-one Ash Barty, who takes with her three major singles titles — the French Open (2019), Wimbledon (2021) and this year’s Australian Open — along with 12 other singles titles, after clocking 121 weeks at the top of her sport.
But she also won adoration and respect throughout the tennis world and far beyond. Tennis Australia boss Craig Tiley described Barty as a “once in a lifetime” player, while male world number three Stefanos Tsitsipas said she was at the pinnacle of her game.
Her super-stardom and trophy-shackled pool room can make it easy to forget Barty achieved all of that by age 25 — when most young people are either junior team members finding their way in a workplace bullpen or emerging from training with a winding career path ahead.
It’s the sort of pressure familiar to someone like Cameron Schwab, who was appointed CEO of Richmond Football Club at just 24, the youngest in the history of the Australian Football League (AFL).
Schwab, who now runs leadership and business management consultancy designCEO, says Barty is a testament to a simple truth in success: you have to show up, day after day, and put the work in.
“The work to be the best tennis player in the world, a true professional, someone who understood, loved and became great at the drudgery that is required to master the highest level of a combative one-on-one sport, and the expectations that came with it,” Schwab tells Smart Company.
But putting in the work can mean more than the nuts and bolts of chasing success on the court or off it, Schwab continues.
“She has also done the work on herself,” he put it simply.
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“The kind of self-knowing and personal insight to recognise if the love and joy are no longer there for her — the same courage and humility that made her the best — allows her to walk away and be perfectly fine with it.”
It’s this, Schwab says, that is “leadership of the highest order”.
“While it is sad that we don’t get to see her play tennis anymore, we can be inspired by her story and the values she models,” he says.
“She is a star.”
Barty’s “achievement” thinking
Culture Bites podcast host Dominic Gourley agrees that there’s something magical about Barty in a game that so often hits the headlines for player tantrums and controversies.
“For many years I’ve admired Ash Barty, not least because she is an exemplary tennis player and sportsperson, but because of the way she presents herself to the wider world and the mindset she approaches the game, and life, are great examples to us all,” he tells SmartCompany.
Gourley, a culture and leadership consultant, says he hears the terms “perfectionist” and “competitive” thrown around by clients on a daily basis, who often point to sports stars in arguing in favour of their dogged approach.
“Ash Barty is my return serve,” Gourley says.
“If you listen to Barty in a post-match interview, you can hear a subtle but crucial difference in the way she thinks and approaches life. Other players go out there to ‘beat Ash Barty’. Ash goes out there to play great tennis.”
Gourley calls it “achievement” thinking. “It hasn’t been popularised in the public’s vocabulary, but it really should be,” he says.
Achievement thinking is about working to your own standard of performance, and not thinking about the winning or losing outcome more broadly.
He says perfectionists too often get caught in the belief that “they are what they do”, which “drives anxiety and pressure, not performance,” he warns.
“Ultimately, you can’t control the outcome,” he says simply.
“If you want a successful life, focus on achieving your own standards of excellence, not just the result.”
So what’s next for Barty? In announcing her retirement, she expressed her excitement about new opportunities beyond the court.
“Ash Barty the person has so many dreams that she wants to chase after that don’t necessarily involve travelling the world, being away from my family, being away from home, which is where I want to be,” Barty mused in her retirement Instagram video.
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“I’ll never, ever, ever stop loving tennis, it’ll always be a massive part of my life. But now I think it’s important that I get to enjoy the next phase of my life as Ash Barty the person, not Ash Barty the athlete.”
No matter which way she goes, Gourley says, Barty’s achievement thinking will allow her to find success wherever she channels her energy.
It seems remarkable to say, Gourley concludes, but “winning Wimbledon was just a part of her journey”.