Australia rejoices as Ash Barty brings it home in Melbourne

25-year-old wins third Grand Slam and ends 44-wait for a home singles winner in Australia

 

Ashleigh Barty ended a 44-year wait on Saturday night, defeating Danielle Collins of the United States to become the first Australian player to win the Australian Open singles title since 1978. Barty defeated Collins in straight sets, 6-3, 7-6 (2).

Born and raised in the steamy Australian state of Queensland, Barty has been ranked No 1 for more than 100 weeks and has become a hugely popular figure in her home nation. Her matches during the Open this year have attracted large television audiences.

But until now, her most significant triumphs have come far from home. She won her first Grand Slam singles title in 2019 at the French Open and won Wimbledon last year when most Australians were unable to travel because of coronavirus restrictions.

But she was able to organise a “Barty Party” at home this year, defeating the 27th-seeded Collins in prime time in Melbourne. She was inscrutable throughout, as is her way, but there was nothing understated about her celebration.

After erasing two breaks of serve to rally from 1-5 deficit in the second set, she dominated the tiebreaker and finished off her victory with a forehand passing shot winner. Barty threw her head back and howled at length before embracing her former doubles partner and fellow Australian Casey Dellacqua, sitting courtside and now retired and working as a television analyst.

Barty was presented the winner’s trophy by one of her role models, Evonne Goolagong-Cawley, a four-time Australian Open singles champion who, like Barty, is of Indigenous Australian heritage. The two women from different eras – Goolagong Cawley is 70 – have developed a deep connection, and Goolagong Cawley’s appearance on Saturday night was a surprise.

“As an Aussie, the most important part of this tournament is being able to share it with so many people,” Barty said in her victory speech. “You guys today in the crowd have been nothing shy of exceptional. This crowd is one of the most fun I’ve ever played in front of and you guys brought me so much joy out here today. You relaxed me and you forced me to play my best tennis and against a champion like Danielle I know I had to absolutely bring that today.”

In truth, it was not Barty’s best tennis: there were too many unforced errors and nervy shots and even a missed backhand volley into an open court. But in light of the huge pressure that came with performing at home in this context, it was a stirring finish and it capped a dominant performance throughout the tournament.

Barty did not lose a set in seven matches, controlling play with her precise and powerful first serve, crisply chipped backhand and versatile topspin forehand. She won 82 per cent of her first serve points against Collins, an aggressive returner, and fought through some nervous patches of play to find the angles and lines when she needed them most.

Collins will surely harbour some regrets about the second set. She was in firm command at one stage and seemed to be relaxing under duress while Barty was tightening, double faulting twice to go down 1-5. But though Collins was within two points of winning the set in three different games, she could not close the deal as the near-capacity crowd in Rod Laver Arena gave Barty nothing but positive reinforcement, meeting Collins’s errors with cheers and her winners with polite applause.

She was unusually subdued early, though was soon pumping her fist and shouting her trademark “come on!” But her trademark fight could not sustain her in the second set. Collins delivered an eloquent, moving speech, breaking into tears as she thanked her mentor Marty Schneider, and doing justice to the occasion, a particularly important one for Australia.

“It’s been tremendous to watch her climb the rankings all the way to No 1 and live out her dream,” Collins said of Barty, before speaking to her directly. “I really admire you for the player you are and the variety in your game and hopefully I can implement some of that into mine.”

Collins, 28, was a two-time college singles champion at the University of Virginia and did not turn fully professional until she was 22, quite a contrast with Barty, who began her professional career at age 14.

Collins, an aggressive baseliner and fierce competitor, reached her first Grand Slam final by fighting her way through a series of matches in Melbourne, including three-set victories over Clara Tauson in the third round and Elise Mertens in the fourth round. Collins will rise to No 10 in the world rankings after her run and become the top-ranked American for the first time.

But she could not stop Barty from ending a national drought. The last Australian to win the Australian Open in singles was Chris O’Neil, an unseeded player ranked outside the top 100 who never made another deep run at a Major tournament after her victory in 1978.

Barty, 25, has now solidified her spot as the world’s top-ranked player and has won her three Grand Slam singles titles on three different surfaces, red clay at the French Open, grass at Wimbledon and hardcourt in Melbourne. The only Grand Slam singles title she has yet to win is the US Open, although she did win the women’s doubles title in New York in 2018 with her American partner, CoCo Vandeweghe.

At 5’5”, Barty is not physically imposing in a sport increasingly populated by taller players like the 5’ 10” Collins. But Barty is a complete threat, able to adjust her game on the fly and hit a particularly wide variety of shots. She can serve and drive her forehand with overwhelming power, but she can also opt for finesse, making frequent and devastating use of a technically sound single-handed slice backhand that skids low after the bounce and is difficult for many players to counter. Barty, as her doubles prowess makes clear, is also comfortable at the net and has some of the best volleys in the game as well as a spectacular overhead.

A prodigy, she took an indefinite break from the game at age 18 after the 2014 US Open as she struggled to adjust to the travel and expectations that came with playing on tour. She played professional cricket before returning to tennis in February 2016, when she began working with Craig Tyzzer, a veteran Australian coach.

They have formed quite a partnership and have worked to develop Barty’s game while preserving her mental health and enthusiasm. She did not compete on tour for most of 2020 because of coronavirus restrictions, and after her successful summer in 2021, she chose to return to Australia after losing in the third round of the US Open instead of remaining overseas and competing in the WTA Finals in Mexico.

Barty was weary and homesick after months on the road, and the decision to take a break has paid off at the start of 2022. She is 11-0, winning the title in Adelaide and now, most significantly, seven matches at the Australian Open, giving Australians a much-needed lift after nearly two years of pandemic lockdowns and restrictions.

“It can’t be easy playing with the weight of your country on your shoulders,” said Todd Woodbridge, the former Australian Open star at the awards ceremony.

But Barty’s shoulders were sturdy enough, and the Daphne Akhurst Memorial Cup was soon glittering in her deft hands.

“This is just a dream come true for me, Barty said. “And I’m so proud to be an Aussie.” – This article originally appeared in The New York Times

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