As people, once we convince ourselves that someone is better than us, because of their skills or qualities, our minds automatically get comfortable with that kind of power dynamic. We develop the desire to see the better ones constantly be better, outstanding, ideally undefeatable.
So much of sports fandom can be explained through this and also why it sometimes becomes so difficult for those on the receiving end of the devotion to walk out with their sanity intact.
History is filled with examples of athletes who crumbled under this pressure. Ashleigh Barty is an exception.
The reigning Australian Open champion retired from professional tennis a few days ago, at 25 years of age as the world number 1.
A player of her stature gives a lot to people in terms of learnings related to persistence, hard work, etc. but Ash's most significant contribution, at least to me, is making people question who holds bigger power? The one who is looked up to or the ones who look up to them?!
Also, why do so many of us have a tendency to look for answers that do not exist? Those who are not busy with unwarranted criticism of Ash have some time to introspect.
Ash Barty is a 3-time Grand Slam winner, who has won the biggest honours in tennis on all 3 major surfaces. She won the French Open in 2019, Wimbledon in 2021, and the Australian Open in 2022 in January.
Overall, she has a win-loss record of 305-102 in singles competition, which is prolific. However, domination is not what she played for, and while it makes many squirm, nor for excellence. She played because it was rewarding - and then one day it presumably stopped being as rewarding as she'd have liked. So she left.
That's all there is to the story, and if one tracks her professional career, one understands Ash has always been like this.
She ruled the international tennis scene even as a teenager, winning the 2011 Wimbledon girls' singles title. She was ranked number 2 in the world soon after.
She followed this up with a series of other victories, and everyone who understands or loves tennis said that a star was born.
The consequent expectation was to see her in the senior tournaments. I feel like as fans, that is where we become slightly entitled. In moderation, that is not necessarily a bad feeling to have, sport gives us so much to live for - but we sometimes forget that sports are played by actual humans who are under no obligation to live for us.
In 2014, Barty took a break from tennis to focus on things that excited her more. One of these things was cricket, and you'd best believe that she was good because she managed to book a spot in Women's Big Bash League team Brisbane Heat without any experience of playing cricket professionally.
And then she left cricket too. When asked why, she said that she realised she missed tennis too much to be away from it.
Ash made a comeback in 2016 and climbed to the top, once again, in no time. That was obviously because she is talented. But all great athletes move an inch beyond technical supremacy with what we like to call enchantment. That comes from a place in their hearts and is generally impossible to execute if one forces themselves to stay against the heart's desire.
However, it is tough to walk away from devotion, and even tougher, from love. We have seen many athletes who hung on way beyond their time for these two and who are we to judge?! Ashleigh, though, showed that it is possible to walk away from these rewards without delaying the exit. In most cases, that would be advisable.
As for her fans, including myself, it's best to remind ourselves that one cannot declare something premature because it feels that way to them. Your favourite athlete might have saved you in ways you find difficult to express but their first responsibility is towards themselves.
I am no saint but it seems selfish to put people, just as fragile or powerful as us, fundamentally speaking, at a position where they feel forced to live up to it.
Let things go like Ashleigh.