Posted by: Mike Cornelius | March 24, 2022

The Rarest Of Heroes

He is in, she is out, and the juxtaposition of career decisions by the leading athletes in two different sports could hardly be more jarring.  The weekend before last, less than six weeks after announcing his retirement from the NFL, seven-time Super Bowl champion quarterback Tom Brady reversed course, declaring his intention to return to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers for another season.  Then on Wednesday in Australia, Ashleigh Barty, the number one player in the women’s rankings and reigning champion of both Wimbledon and the Australian Open, stunned the tennis world by announcing her retirement from the sport.  Of course, what was upside down about the twin announcements was the fact that Brady, who is playing on, is now readying for his 23rd season of professional football at the age of 44, while Barty, who has chosen to leave the stage, is only 25 and has been a professional at the WTA level for just over a decade.

Those familiar with the careers of both stars could find in their pasts some logical basis for the apparent incongruity.  Brady, whose accomplishments at the forefront of this country’s most popular sport make him the more famous of the two, has long said that he wanted to play until at least the age of 45.  Still, professional sports favor youth and even well protected NFL quarterbacks take beatings, so that oft-stated goal always seemed unlikely.  Enough so that when Brady first declared his intention to move on to a post-football life, the general reaction was mild surprise, but certainly not shock. 

For her part, Barty had already stepped away from the game once.  After the 2014 U.S. Open, at a time when the then 18-year-old was better known as a doubles player, she put her career on hold after becoming increasingly depressed by the constant time away from her native Australia.  In the previous calendar year, she was home for a mere 27 days.  But she returned to tennis 18 months later, having established herself as a formidable cricket player during the hiatus, and began her steady climb up the singles rankings.  Now, as the world number one and the owner of three Grand Slam titles including the two current ones, Barty appeared poised to rule women’s tennis for some time, making this week’s announcement utterly unexpected. 

The Twitter post in which Brady unretired included the standalone phrase “unfinished business,” which is certainly a fair reason for one to continue their work, no matter the profession.  But in Brady’s case it’s reasonable to ask exactly what mountains remain unscaled?  The NFL awards the Lombardi Trophy every year, but if the quest for an eighth title constitutes unfinished business, would a campaign for a ninth be any less urgent?  Instead, it’s hard not to conclude that the NFL’s GOAT is traveling a road all too familiar to sports fans.  Those of us in the cheap seats can scarcely imagine what it is like to be down on the field, with roars of adulation rolling down on one like wave after wave of warm and inviting water.  Every sport is filled with stories of heroes who could not bring themselves to surrender the spotlight and step off the stage.  But most of those stories end badly, with stars whose skills have been sapped by age underperforming at best or becoming sad tales of buffoonery at worst. 

That may not be Brady’s fate.  His legions of supporters will quickly point out that last season he led the league in passing yards and touchdowns, while finishing second to Aaron Rodgers in the MVP voting.  Those numbers suggest that one cannot simply dismiss the possibility of another deep playoff run for fans at Tampa’s Raymond James Stadium.  But no matter how much avocado ice cream he consumes, Brady will assuredly not be the first athlete to outrun Father Time, and anyone who has marveled at all he has achieved would take no pleasure in watching the GOAT as merely an old goat. 

Barty was of course many years away from that point, which makes her decision so unusual, and so profound.  She had plenty of unfinished business to pursue – a U.S. Open title to complete the career Grand Slam, the possibility of the always elusive calendar year Slam which, having triumphed at Melbourne Park in January, only she could achieve in 2022.  Yet after this week’s announcement, the significance of that dominating victory at the Australian Open is now clear.

For two weeks in January, Ash Barty played transcendent tennis.  She entered her home country’s Open as the top seed and left it as a national hero, the first Australian woman to claim the title in more than four decades.  She stormed through the draw without dropping so much as a single set.  When the final point was won the normally reserved Barty let out a howl of joy.  Now we can see that her cry was not merely a scream of momentary triumph, but of joy about a career defining achievement.

What sets Barty apart from Brady is her ability to see that, revel in it, and now move on.  Precious few athletes voluntarily leave the stage at the height of their powers, and the fact that he could not is no slight on the quarterback, no matter what next season brings.  But how glorious and how complete is the tennis player who could do all that?  Game, set, match, and whatever future she may wish for, to Ash Barty.

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