Ashleigh Barty’s last seven ranking tournaments have registered the following return: two titles, one runner-up finish, three semi-final defeats, and one misstep at January’s Brisbane International when she fell in the round of 16. Those events span Barty’s 28-week residency on top of the world rankings. It is now the second-longest stretch ranked No 1 since Serena Williams’s record-equalling three-and-a-half year reign ended in 2016. Barty is in the form of her life.
Not that the Queenslander can do much about it. Nobody has won a point on the WTA Tour since 8 March, and there won’t be any further action until 13 July at the earliest. If, by some miracle, the circuit can restart in line with that best case scenario, Barty is unlikely to feature until the Silicon Valley Classic in San Jose during the week beginning 3 August. That would make it at least 157 days between serves for a player in the sweet spot of her career, desperately unfortunate not to be able to make hay while the sun shines. In the grand scheme of ongoing cruelty it is at the lighter end of the scale, but it is cruel nonetheless.
Form can be fleeting, especially in women’s tennis, a sport that has seen eight world No 1s in the past four years, during which time there have been ten different grand slam champions. By the time the circuit resumes, who knows if Barty will be able to pick up where she left off? Across the net, her rivals will have enjoyed an extended period in which to study how to combat the 23-year-old’s unfamiliar, idiosyncratic game. The result, a much narrower window of opportunity than before.
Barty is not alone in her inability to capitalise on form that could define a career or rewrite history. In men’s tennis Rafael Nadal is one grand slam shy of Roger Federer’s career haul of 20, and the Spaniard’s best chance of securing that record-equalling title is at the French Open, a tournament no longer taking place in June, now rescheduled optimistically for late September. And what of Federer? The veteran’s pet slam, Wimbledon, has been erased from the 2020 calendar entirely.
The postponed Olympic Games condenses this discussion into a single event. Athletes the world over have tailored their careers to ensure they hit peak form in late July 2020. A lot can happen in the additional year they now have to wait.
It’s not just sportspeople at the zenith of their careers missing out. Steve O’Keefe recently retired from first-class cricket with his second Sheffield Shield title and a career record that boasts 301 wickets at 24.66. In less apocalyptic times he would have been chaired from the SCG and drowned in lager, instead of sitting in his study, humouring the press with a 30-minute video conference.
At the other end of the scale delay to the A-League finals, and the precarious nature of Wellington Phoenix’s involvement in any playoffs, means the shop window has closed temporarily for Liberato Cacace, arguably the competition’s most promising asset. This time last year his New Zealand international teammate Sarpreet Singh was catching the eye of Bayern Munich, later securing a life-changing transfer to the Bundesliga.
Sport, and sport watching, is enriched by these narratives that contribute to the marking of time. They help order what can, on occasion, appear an amorphous continuum of competition (and life), adding much needed punctuation.
Commentator Clive Tyldesley captured this perfectly in October 2002 when he narrated 16-year-old Wayne Rooney’s coming of age against Arsenal at Goodison Park. “Remember the name: Wayne Rooney!” Tyldesley squawked. “It’s Premiership history. The big league’s youngest ever goalscorer,” adding – before celebrations had died down – that the last-minute winner had surely ended the defending champions’ 30 game unbeaten run.
It was an unforgettable moment. Anyone watching knew in their bones that something seismic had occurred that would shape their sporting worldview for years. For someone else such examples might include David Warner teeing off against South Africa in 2009 in a T20 international staged before the opener’s first-class debut, or Tiger Woods ushering in a new era for golf at the 1997 Masters.
The absence of sport means an absence of these wayfinders, compounding the sense of dislocation we’re all experiencing, adrift in our uncertain lockdown realities. No full stop at the end of the AFLW campaign. No State of Origin on the horizon. No Ash Barty cashing in after almost giving it all away as recently as four years ago. Players and fans alike, we are all missing out.