Coming into the Australian Open, Ash Barty was always the favourite for the title, but pulling it off involves winning 7 matches on the trot over the fortnight against some of the world’s best and, on Saturday, she has to get past the second woman left standing at Melbourne Park, Danielle Collins.
It’s been an incredible January, an incredible summer for us. I’m really looking forward to having one last crack here, to really go out there and enjoy it. Ash Barty
“I’ll go out there and embrace it,” Barty says, now just one win short of achieving her ambition, to add her home Grand Slam to the title she won in Paris in 2019 and at Wimbledon last year.
“To be in the finals weekend of your home Grand Slam is what a lot of Aussie players dream of,” Barty added. “It’s going to be an incredible experience … I can’t wait to go out there and enjoy it.”
The World No 1 is excited to contest her first AO women’s singles final, in which she faces Collins, ranked 30, after the 28-year old American found her way through the draw to become the surprise finalist, dropping sets to Clara Tauson and Elise Mertens before storming past Alizé Cornet and Iga Swiatek.
Barty’s draw was the tougher half, although she was helped by the demise of some early seeded casualties, but sailed through it all with flying colours, conceding only 21 games, and dropping her serve just once.
At 25, the Aussie already has 2 majors and 14 tour titles to her name, and she has dealt with the likes of Camila Giorgi, Amanda Anisimova and Madison Keys with relative ease.
In fact, she has hardly broken sweat in the tournament so far, storming into the final without dropping a set in her pursuit of becoming the first Australian to win the year’s first major since Chris O’Neil in 1978.
While Barty leads the head-to-head against Collins, 3-1, the American won their last encounter in Adelaide last year, and she had to come from behind to win two of her matches, while she has just 2 tournament titles to her name.
Many believe Collins’ hard-hitting game could hurt the Aussie’s hopes, but the same was said of Keys.
Barty already has created history by progressing to Saturday final, the first local contender to reach this stage since Wendy Turnbull in 1980.
“It’s brilliant to be playing in the business end of your home Slam. I’m not going to lie about that. It’s amazing,” she said.
“I think being able to experience it multiple times has been incredible, but Saturday’s going to be a new experience for me.
“So I’ll go out there and embrace it, smile, try and do the best that I can. Whatever happens, happens.”
Barty’s laid-back approach belies her steely will on the court, where she uses her impeccable game, with its variety of spins and precision shot-making, to dismantle her opponents.
She is a throw-back to by-gone days, to Australia’s golden generation, and is an all-rounder, who uses both a single-handed sliced backhand and a powerful double-hander to great effect, and who volleys with exceptional skill.
“I’ve said a couple of times I wish I was, maybe, born in a different era, and I got to experience playing on grass courts all year long,” she said. “It would have been incredible,
“But the development that has come with moving to Melbourne Park has been incredible to encourage fans to come and enjoy it with us.”
Her forehand is a major weapon, as is her serve which, for a woman who is just 5 foot 5 inches tall in a land of 6-footers, is a potent force of placement, plus she is also extremely athletic and has great tactical skills.
Barty’s team is small but, in line with current trends, features a mind-set coach to sharpen her mind and well-being for which she credits her mentor Ben Crowe.
“My mentor, Ben Crowe, has been a massive part of my life,” she told Eurosport. “He helped my team, he helped me to change the perception of how I viewed everything, really.
“I was able to grow as a person, and really start enjoying my tennis a lot more. It’s taken me to that next level and I’ve thoroughly enjoyed the work.
“We’ve had to work really hard, and I love it. I love trying to piece together all the pieces of the puzzle to try to make me a complete tennis player, and it’s been fantastic to have him as part of that team.”
Another mentor, 7-time Grand Slam champion Evonne Goolagong Cawley will be watching her friend play on Saturday from a distance, her lounge in Queensland.
Similarly to Barty’s run to last year’s Wimbledon final, Cawley has decided not to speak until after the World No 1’s first AO final, which worked a treat last July.
After Barty broke through for a maiden major title at Roland Garros in 2019, Cawley compared her style to Roger Federer.
“I remember seeing her for the first time during the Australian Open … and I saw one point, and she had every shot involved in that one point, and all the skills came out and, even though she lost that match, I just knew she had it,” she said.
Barty is often compared to Federer because, after dismantling players on court, she is then their buddy in the locker room, but she is quick to dismiss any comparison to the great Swiss, saying: “Obviously, by no stretch of the imagination are we on the same page.”
With her Indigenous lineage on her dad’s side, Barty has spoken about how she sees Cawley as a special person, someone who has helped and advised her greatly.
The amiable Aussie ignores all the hype, doesn’t read the newspapers or watches tennis on TV, preferring to follow Aussie football or the cricket.
She is rather anti-celebrity, more partial to the home life than notoriety, liking ball games and casual clothes rather than gowns and red carpets, and she refreshingly confesses that she is sick of seeing her face plastered on billboards all over Melbourne.
That said, she takes her obligations to her sponsors seriously and her commitment to the game at all levels is a great credit to the sport in which she has emerged as a perfect role model.
“I don’t drive a s–t car. It’s a Jag,” she has said, not exactly shabby that she has endorsements ranging from Jaguar and streaming platforms to Australia’s most beloved food spread Vegemite and fancy Rado watches.
Forbes recently ranked Barty, with her $13.1 million income, as the world’s third wealthiest female athlete.
None of this changes her demeanour, both on and off the court and, as Barty says ‘I’m just me, and will always be just me. Nothing changes that’.
She will be staying relaxed, going through her routines ahead of her contest with Collins, confident in the knowledge that she is doing all she can to come through her latest challenge the best way that she can.
On court, she will stick to her formula of reliable of serves, befuddling slice and booming forehands to help her deal with whatever Collins throws at her.
The American has spoken about her admiration of Barty’s game, highlighting her variety and use of the slice backhand, but she is not intimidated by the Aussie’s approach, believing practicing on the public courts of Florida as a child and during her pro career will help her combat the World No 1’s strategy.
“I think over the course of my career I have done a pretty good job of practicing against people who have variety in their game,” Collins said after her Thursday night’s semi-final win over Swiatek.
“I try to play with people that throw different shots at me that, maybe, I don’t get all the time, just so that I’m constantly working on it and trying to get better at it.
“I played against a lot of people in the park that liked the slice backhand, a lot of people that have a one-handed backhand, which Ash doesn’t really have, but who use the one-handed slice.
“In my off-season, that was what I was doing every day. I was playing at the public park close to my house, and most of the days I was on the court with my boyfriend and we were hitting on the ball machine.
“That can throw some different variety at me, too, sometimes.”
Barty’s greater challenge is the wider expectation as she seeks to extend her 10-match winning streak, having scooped the Adelaide International title earlier this month.
“It’s been an incredible January, an incredible summer for us,” she said. “I’m really looking forward to having one last crack here, to really go out there and enjoy it.”
On Saturday, AO crowd limits will rise again and Rod Laver Arena will be able to be at 80 per cent capacity for the weekend’s finals, the majority of which will be cheering on a Barty win, providing Collins does not spoil the party.
“I think every time we played we have battled, and they have been some really fun matches,” Collins added.
“Even the matches that I have lost have been some of my most memorable moments on court because of the way we were battling and going back and forth.
“I think, when I go out against her, we’re going to have another battle, hopefully, and put on a good show for everyone.
“I’m going to have to kind of look back at some of the matches that we have played in the past, and sit down and, kind of, think about what worked well and, maybe, some of the things that didn’t work as well ,and just try to come up with the best game plan possible.”
As Barty says – whatever happens, happens – and the world will be looking on eagerly to see whose destiny will be fulfilled on Saturday as another page of tennis history is about the written.