BRISBANE, Australia — Ash Barty has prioritized her health over her status as women's tennis No. 1 by opting out of a second Grand Slam event during the coronavirus pandemic, this time skipping a title defense at the French Open.
After pulling out of the U.S. Open, which is being contested in New York without crowds, Barty has also decided against traveling to Europe for a clay court tournament in Rome and the rescheduled French Open from Sept. 27 because of concerns over COVID-19. She has indicated she may not play competitively again until 2021.
The 24-year-old Australian said it was a tough decision, particularly because Roland Garros is where she captured her first major title last year.
"Last year's French Open was the most special tournament of my career so this is not a decision I have made lightly," Barty said in a statement Tuesday. "I wish the players and the French Federation all the best for a successful tournament."
The statement was issued within hours of French Open organizers saying spectators would be allowed at the tournament despite a growing number of coronavirus cases in the country.
Barty cited potential health risks associated with COVID-19 and her interrupted preparation as the main reasons for pulling out of the tournaments. She hasn't been able to practice with her coach, Craig Tyzzer, recently because of domestic border closures within Australia. Barty lives in Queensland, which has become Australia's hub for professional sports during the pandemic, and Tyzzer lives interstate.
Parts of Australia are in lockdown amid a second wave of the coronavirus that has lifted the country's death toll from the disease to 770. COVID-19 has killed nearly 190,000 Americans and more than 30,000 people in France, according to a count by Johns Hopkins University. Globally, there have been more than 27 million cases and deaths have topped 890,000.
Players at the U.S. Open are playing and living in strict bio-security bubbles and similar restrictions are expected for competitors in France, including regular testing for COVID-19.
Barty, No. 2-ranked Simona Halep and 2019 champion Bianca Andreescu were among the top players who withdrew from the U.S. Open women's draw, while Rafael Nadal opted out of the men's draw and Roger Federer was injured. Nadal and Halep are expected to return to the French Open, which was postponed in May during the height of the lockdown.
The WTA has revised its women's ranking system to accommodate for the pandemic, given the wide variations in travel and other restrictions around the world. Barty has a big lead, but could be challenged by the likes of Halep.
Under the revised system, a player's ranking will be comprised of her best 16 results in singles based on the points earned between March 2019 through December 2020, which the WTA is calling the "Better of 2019 and 2020" points earned at tour-level and Grand Slam events.
Barty said she was now focusing on a "long preseason and the summer in Australia."
Travel is still heavily restricted for people in Australia, where the international borders were closed in March because of the pandemic, although organizers of the Australian Open remain confident the season-opening major will go ahead as scheduled in Melbourne in January.
"It has been a challenging year for everyone and although I am disappointed on a tennis front, the health and well-being of my family and my team will always be my priority," Barty said. "Thank you to my fans for your continued support, I can't wait to play for you again."
The extended break means Barty hasn't played in a major since her semifinal loss to Sofia Kenin at the Australian Open in January.