AUSTRALIAN Ash Barty’s retirement from professional tennis at the age of 25 has surprised many sports fans worldwide.

It may be seen as a shocking decision to those outside her circle considering the Australian is the world number one and had just recently become the first local player to win her home Open in more than 40 years. But to those close to her, they knew it was coming.

Barty revealed that she was leaving on her own terms and it was a decision that has been met with widespread respect and admiration.

At an age when it appeared that one could still dominate for years to come and with a prospect of having a huge earning potential, it was not easy for Barty to just walk away.

People often do not see the full picture of what an elite athlete goes through and the sacrifice he or she has to make to climb to the top.

Barty often had to stay away from friends and family for months and even years at a time.

Outsiders may see the trophies and the prize money as adequate compensation but the athlete may feel they are not defined by the sport alone.

Barty is not the first young athlete to leave at the pinnacle of her career.

Fellow Australian swimmer Ian Thorpe also quit the sport at the age of 24 when he was already a five-time Olympics champion at that time.

Thorpe in his own words said he retired young because he was not able to deal with the enormous pressure.

Thorpe felt he could have gone for two more Olympics if he didn’t have to deal with the heavy expectations.

American swimmer Mark Spitz also walked away from the sport at the age of 22 after pulling off the stunning feat of bagging seven gold medals at the 1972 Munich Olympics, a historic achievement that lasted until Michael Phelps went one better at the 2008 edition in Beijing.

The burden on mental health is too much for top-level swimmers as they have to put in nothing less than 30-40 hours of training every week to qualify to represent one’s own country.

The departure for Barty, Thorpe and Spitz seemed premature but here in Malaysia, it is quite common for a world-class athlete to retire in his or her mid-30s.

It is from this perspective as a sportswriter why I take my hats off to our top athletes like Lee Chong Wei, Nicol David and Azizulhasni Awang.

The physical toil and grit apart from coping with the occasional injury woes for decades can be too much for some, especially those who began competing when they were still teens – but some just kept pushing themselves.

Chong Wei, for instance, would have given himself another two years to fight on had it not been for his weakened physical condition due to cancer.

The Penang-born shuttler bid a tearful goodbye to the sport when he was 37 back in 2019 – just a year before the Tokyo Games.

Eight-time squash world champion Nicol also decided to call time on her illustrious career at the age of 35 to make way for the younger generation.

On the other hand, we are lucky that Azizul is still going strong as a track cyclist and gunning for his fifth Olympic Games outing in Paris in 2024, when he will be 36.

On Tuesday, Azizul became only the third athlete after shuttlers Rashid Sidek and Chong Wei to win a fourth National Sportsman of the Year award.

There is no question that he will be an all-time record holder in the next couple of years if he can maintain his competitive streak at the highest level.

It is also a reflection of the sheer commitment and mental drive put in despite entering the mid-30s.

Azizul is certainly a shining example to anybody who aspires to sustain their sporting career for a long time.

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