Former British No 1 on the Ashleigh Barty v Iga Swiatek debate

Ashleigh Barty and Iga Swiatek after a match

Former British No 1 Annabel Croft believes tennis is missing the rivalry that could have put the women’s game back in the spotlight, with Ashleigh Barty v Iga Swiatek a showdown that was not given time to develop.

Barty started 2022 as the undisputed world No 1 and cemented her position at the top of the rankings with an emotional win in front of her home fans at the Australian Open.

Yet tennis was rocked by her shock retirement a few weeks later, with Poland’s Swiatek taking over as world No 1 and enjoying an impressive year that included wins at the French Open and US Open.

The desperately disappointing crowds at the WTA Finals in Texas this week have left the impression that women’s tennis is struggling to find a voice on the tennis stage and Croft told Tennis365 that the sport needed a rivalry between the two biggest names in the women’s game.

“That would have been a great rivalry,” Croft told us at a Game4Padel event. “It would have been a real cat-and-mouse rivalry.

“It might well have developed into one of the great rivalries and that’s something we have lacked in women’s tennis for quite some time.

“You would have very different skills, but both very talented and headstrong characters going up against each other. I guess we will never know (who would come out on top.”

Barty won both of her matches against Swiatek on the WTA Tour, with the most recent coming at the start of 2022 in Adelaide and her decision to quit tennis when she was at the peak of her powers was a hammer blow to the WTA Tour.

The sport has lost its most popular player and on the evidence of the disappointing crowds at this week’s WTA Finals in Texas, they are struggling to attract fans to the biggest events in the sport.

It is a problem tennis will need to address looking ahead to 2023, but Croft insists she has respect for Barty after her decision to step away from the sport in the manner she did.

“It was just extraordinary, what a way to retire,” reflected Croft.

“She had won everything she wanted to win and for those of us covering the sport, we were devastated and sad. We all enjoyed watching her brand of tennis and her style, that creative artistry.

“She took her time to develop her skills, had an interesting story when she left the sport, went into cricket and then came back and won Grand Slams.

“We thought she was going to go on and dominate more, but to have won her home Slam and just literally overnight shocked the entire tennis world over and said I’m hanging up my racket and do other things in my life.

“That’s pretty impressive. That’s the way to do retirement.”

Croft spoke to Tennis365 at a Game4Padel event in Edinburgh, as the company opened new padel courts in the Scottish capital.

“They say it’s the fastest growing sport in the UK and it has real momentum behind it,” added Croft.

A lot of people in my friendship group are asking me about padel now and that shows there is interest, so the main issue is the lack of courts. We need to get more out there.

“We had a young girl here in Edinburgh who had never played tennis or padel before and she told me afterward that she loved it. She got every single serve in the box, we had some rallies and she loved it.

“I have seen that a lot with friends. When I play with my husband and another couple, it would be hard to play tennis and have a fun game, but I can do that in padel.

“Also, I always say I have a great laugh when I play padel. It’s a really jolly game, you have a lot of fun rallies.”