If Ash Barty feared Madison Keys so close to reaching her goal, there was no sign of it at the Australian Open on Thursday evening, when the World No 1 powered past the American, 6-1 6-3, to arrive at her pre-ordained place in the final, the first Aussie to do so since Wendy Turnbull in 1980.
We keep doing our thing, our routines, come out here on Saturday and enjoy it, massive smile on my face, and see what happens. Ash Barty
In the final, Barty will face another American in Danielle Collins, after an equally dominant dispatching of Iga Swiatek, 6-4 6-1.
“It’s unreal! It’s just incredible,” Barty, who is bidding to become first Australian to win her home Grand Slam since Chris O’Neill in 1978, said on court. “I love this tournament, and love competing out here, and playing in Australia.
“As an Aussie, we are exceptionally spoilt that we’re a Grand Slam nation, we get to play at home and in our backyard.
“I’m just happy that I get to play my best tennis here. I enjoy it, I’ve done well before, and now we have a chance to play for a title.”
As humble and amiable as Barty is off the court, her ruthlessness on it at times belies belief as she blitzed Keys in just 62 minutes on a packed Rod Laver Arena, taking her total tally of lost games for the fortnight to only 21.
Many predicted that the resurgent Keys, who had stormed her way through the draw, was capable of knocking Barty off her path because she is a taller, stronger and flatter ball-striker, but the top seed simply dismantled her challenger with deceptive ease.
A former top 10 player, Keys had contested more Grand Slam semi-finals, 5, compared to Barty’s 4 appearances, but the Australian was ready for her formidable serve and broke her immediately, which began the carving apart of the American’s game, using her low slice return and controlling the baseline with her forehand.
“Conditions were really different tonight,” said Barty. “It was humid. “This is Brisbane weather. The ball was a little bit slower, heavier off the strings.
“I just tried to run and adapt, and make as many balls as I could, keep Maddy under the pump on her serve because she’s got the ability to take it away from you really quickly without you realising what’s happening.”
By the end of the opening game, Keys already appeared to be searching for new ideas as she bailed out of a rally on break point with a desperate drop-shot, which Barty easily dismissed.
It set the tone for the opening set in which Barty was untouchable on her serve and put constant pressure on Keys’ own deliveries. Whatever the American threw at her, the Aussie mostly had the answer.
Barty by-passed a break point with an ace to lead 5-1, and Keys double-faulted at 0-30, feeling the pressure, and allowing the top seed to send a forehand return down the line to seal the opener.
It was Keys’ defence, not her big-hitting, that helped her escape from 0-30 at 0-1 in the second, and a fist pump from the 26-year-old came after she managed to hold after deuce for 2-2.
Barty’s resolve wavered briefly, having not broken through, and she miscued on a drive volley after stretching the World No 51 to suddenly faced a break point herself, but a quick forehand winner got her out of troubles and held ahead of breaking Keys again in the following game and marching on to a comprehensive win.
It was a 5th near-flawless performance from Barty at Melbourne Park this fortnight, with every facet of her game clicking as she reeled off the first 10 points on her serve, landing 61% of her first serves in, and winning 86% of those points, while saving both break points against her, one with an ace and another with an overhead.
The upshot was that Keys was pressed by Barty throughout, her power game neutralised as she committed 24 unforced errors, against just 8 winners.
They good friends smiled broadly at each other the net after Barty had caressed her 20th winner of the contest, which easily offset her mere 13 unforced errors.
The World No 1 has now increased her winning streak to 10, the last 9 matches in straight sets, while Amanda Anisimova is the only player to break Barty just once so far at AO 22.
When Barty won her first Grand Slam title in Paris in 2019, she beat Keys, Anisimova and Jessica Pegula on route to hoisting the trophy, and now she has defeated all three of them again, which for her many fans augurs well for the weekend.
“We keep doing our thing, our routines, come out here on Saturday and enjoy it, massive smile on my face, and see what happens,” Barty added in her usual endearing, low-key fashion.
She has spent just 6 hours 6 minutes on court, and conceded just 21 games, which is the lowest amount that any player has lost en route to a Grand Slam title match since Serena Williams conceded 16 on the way to the 2013 US Open final.
The 25-year old has also improved her major semi-final record to 3-1, with each of her finals so far coming at at Roland Garros 2019 and Wimbledon 2021.
A 4th straight American, however, awaits Barty in Saturday’s final, after Collins toppled Polish hopes with a rugged straight sets win over Swiatek.
The No 27 seed raced into her first Grand Slam final after dropping just 5 games against the 7th seed, upsetting Swiatek with a powerfully polished performance.
Collins, whose only previous major semi-final appearance was at AO19, has won her last 11 completed matches and after notching up her 7th career Top 10 win, is now guaranteed to make her Top 10 debut next week, surpassing her previous career high of No 23, set in January 2019.
Last March, she underwent surgery to treat endometriosis and, since returning, she has compiled a 36-10 record, including her first 2 WTA titles in Palermo and San Jose.
“Feels amazing. It’s been such a journey and it doesn’t happen overnight,” reflected Collins. “It’s so many years of hard work and hours in an early age on court.
“All the early mornings my dad would practice with me before school, and it’s just incredible to be on the stage.
“Especially with the health challenges, I’m just so grateful. I couldn’t be happier.”
Collins’ intent was clear from the very first game, in which she pounded a succession of returns as hard and deep as she could, overwhelming Swiatek with pure first-strike tennis.
Throughout the match, the American never let up on her power as the 28-year-old slammed 27 winners, including 7 off the return and 7 aces, to only 13 unforced errors.
She also won 78% of her first serve points, and a crucial 86% when facing Swiatek’s second serve.
The Pole, a former Rolland Garros champion, did not play a poor match, although she repeatedly served into Collins’ lethal backhand, and she quickly found herself down 4-0, before responding with an almost successful first-set comeback.
A flashy forehand winner got one of the breaks back, and Swiatek seemed to have wrested more momentum in her favour when she saved 3 set points to break Collins again, reducing the deficit to 5-3 after the American served 2 aces to reach double set point, which the Pole saved in tremendous fashion, and when the 27th seed reached her 3rd set point, she double-faulted twice to concede the game.
Collins shrugged off the blip by serving out the set at the second time of asking, thanks to another pair of aces and a service winner.
She then broke Swiatek immediately in the second, with a gloriously angled backhand winner, and there was to be no further opening for the Pole.
She kept battling, though, and saved a match point at 5-1, chasing down a drop-shot to connect with a smart backhand but, moments later, Collins stood arms aloft, too explosive, too relentless.
Collins had swatted a forehand return winner to reach match point, and converted her second with a backhand that was simply too hot for Swiatek to handle.
The 2019 semi-finalist at Melbourne Park finished with 82 percent of her returns in, always on the front foot to deliver her first-strike game plan in some style.
“I have certainly added a little bit more variety to my game over the last couple years, but this is my plan A, and I wanted to go out and try to execute this game plan as best as I could,” she said. “It was working for me really well today, so I just had to stick with it.”
The formidable task of facing No 1 seed Barty now awaits Collins in the final.
“We’ve had some incredible battles over the years and to play against the number one player in the world and in her home country, I think it’s going to be really spectacular,” continued Collins. “I love the energy the fans bring whether they’re for me or for my opponent.
“I think we’re just so grateful after everything with Covid to be able to have incredible energy and people here supporting us. So, I’m just excited to have everybody back.
“Looking forward to hopefully having a great match and battling away with Ash.”
Collins has lost to the Australian 3 times in their 4 previous matches, but her one win was the most recent, a 6-3 6-4 victory in the second round of Adelaide last year.
In fact, Collins is the last player to have defeated Barty on home soil.