Who will replace Ashleigh Barty as world No. 1? Anyone even interested?

There is an opening in women’s tennis. This isn’t a generic invite or tantalizing endorsement deal, but the pinnacle – a chance for someone to grab the world No. 1 ranking, savor it, and fend off challengers with a fiery passion.

Pardon the exaggeration, but there is nothing frivolous about the physical and emotional toll of the world’s greatest players, which begs the question: what is there in this wondrous sport, enjoyed by so many people on the recreational side, who dismantles the dreams of a professional?

On the surface, Naomi Osaka and Ash Barty have little in common. This covers their heritage, their upbringing, their style of play, their behavior on the pitch and their relationship with the public and the media. But they are reluctantly reunited, walking away from the sport at the height of their powers, for reasons many find hard to fathom.

For Osaka, who had the courage to overcome Serena Williams in a tumultuous 2018 US Open final and spent 25 weeks as the world No. 1 player (now ranked 77th), recent experiences have brought nothing but torment, most recently at the Indian event Wells when she broke down in tears on the pitch after being heckled by a spectator.

A year older than Osaka, at 25, Barty announced his retirement on Tuesday at an admirable stage in his career. She has always talked about Wimbledon as “her one real dream in tennis”, and she won that event last July. At a time when no Australian player had won that country’s Grand Slam tournament in 44 years, Barty pulled it off in January.

If there is any insight to be gained from this discussion, forget any notion that tennis, as a sport, harms mental health. It won’t go too well with Billie Jean King, Martina Navratilova, Chris Evert or the williams sisters, not to mention countless others on the men’s and women’s side. But the specter of burnout cannot be ignored, as we discovered with Justine Henin (also 25 and No. 1 when she retired in 2008), Bjorn Borg, Steffi Graf and all those dismal cases in which terribly self-centered parenting overwhelmed a player’s youthful exuberance.

Moreover, we are in a distinctly new era, with the ubiquitous presence of social media and a long-lasting pandemic that has left millions of people discouraged or depressed – or worse. Tennis is by nature defined by a solitary existence, both on the court and traveling the world. “Alone” sums it up pretty well, and the existence of the pandemic — with its quarantine restrictions and reduced social life — may be the very definition of loneliness.

These days, claiming “mental health” issues is gaining immediate and automatic sympathy, as if it fully explains an athlete’s misfortune and there’s nothing else to consider. Outstanding gymnast Simone Biles, which had to bail out the Olympics with “headspace” concerns, is a significant example; if anything, she is portrayed as being more heroic than ever.

There are, however, limits to public acceptance. Barty didn’t talk about the pitfalls of tennis but about a full life yet to be explored. One of the most versatile athletes in the world, she has played world-class cricket and is shaping a triple handicap at her local golf club, despite only playing a few times a year. Her interviews reveal a confident and outspoken woman who should concern no one beyond tennis people who will miss her brilliant presence and all-around game (by far the smartest on the women’s circuit).

In the residue of all this reticence, tennis awaits a player who sees the light through the darkness, finds the sport irresistibly attractive, idolizes Serena or Martina and wants to conquer the whole world. I don’t believe this person exists among today’s top players (too much inconsistency), but I’m sure they are out there, rising through the youth ranks of tennis. His arrival will be welcome.

A pearl waiting

Andre Iguodala has become something of an afterthought amid the whirlwind of roster decisions and immediate concerns for the Warriors, but the championship is a total long shot without his return to full strength. If this happens, the opponents will dread the game planning against his defense, his presence and his late game experience, which greatly improves the team’s performance. … It’s more compelling when you hear it from a former NBA player: Klay Thompsondefense, Tom Tolbert said on KNBR the other day, “Is there nothing Close to what it was. Thompson has the drive and determination to resurrect his all-league form, but can it happen so soon? … the arrogant fool, Kyrie Irvingwas in the audience on Thursday when the mayor of New York Eric Adams announced an exemption for professional athletes and performers from its private sector vaccination mandate, which means that Irving (barring an alarming pandemic outbreak) will be able to play at home for the Brooklyn Nets, starting in Sunday night at the Barclays Center. Good for Adams, looking at Irving and telling him directly, “You should get a shot.” This is also the right decision, given that the unvaccinated to visit players (as is the case at Chase Center), have been allowed to play in New York for months. But it’s sad that this represents a victory for the anti-vax crowd, so well represented by Irving’s smug expression. … Irving’s position can still backfire. If the Nets end up in a qualifier in Toronto (quite possibly), Canada’s strict vaccination policy will rule it out.

Baseball insiders found it shocking that the Colorado Rockies handed over Kris Bryant a seven-year contract after losing disgruntled stars Nolan Arenado and Trevor’s Story to other teams. Equally surprising, some say, is that Bryant likely gave up any chance of playing in another World Series. “They have to see something happen with their team and think they can compete,” said a very skeptical Arenado of the Cardinals’ camp. Was he surprised to see Bryant choose Colorado? “You’re leaving the Giants and Cubs (the 2016 champions) and all that? Yeah.” … Bryant defended himself by saying, “Colorado definitely matches my personality. It’s always been a favorite for me and my family. I’m very proud of the fact that I’ve never played in a losing team in the big leagues, and I don’t intend to do that here…. It hurts for the Giants to lose Bryant, along with the Japanese star Seiya Suzuki, who signed with the Cubs. Suzuki has spent a lot of time analyzing metrics, not just teams, and oddly empty San Francisco isn’t the vibrant, exciting city it was before the pandemic. All welcome the resurrection, when it can be.

Bruce Jenkins writes the 3-Dot Lounge column for The San Francisco Chronicle. Email: [email protected]: @Bruce_Jenkins1

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