Ashleigh Barty could not have asked for better preparation ahead of the Australian Open, which starts on Monday, winning the Yarra Valley Classic warm-up WTA500 tournament with a convincing performance over the rampant Garbiñe Muguruza on Sunday, 7-6(3) 6-4.
I’m just trying to come out here and do the best that I can. I’ve done the preparation, I’ve eaten my Brussels sprouts, done everything to put myself in a position that I can go out there and perform at the best level I can. Ash Barty
It was a process of wearing down the resistance of the Spanish two-time Grand Slam champion under the roof of Margaret Court Arena, and it took Barty an hour and 47 minutes to win her 9th WTA singles title.
“It was some of the better tennis I played throughout the whole week,” Barty said, in her post-match press conference. “Garbiñe forced me to play at that level. It was a great final.”
The Spaniard has been in impeccable form, dropping just 10 games in her 4 earlier matches in a return to the level that that took her to World No 1 spot in 2017, but she was unable to sustain her red-hot run against the versatile and tricky top seed.
“We’re very grateful to have fans after almost a year without crowds,” said Muguruza, the current World No 15 to the smattering of spectators as intermittent rain fell outside.
“I normally don’t play the week before [a Grand Slam], but I’m taking a lot of positives from this week.”
It was, of course, a reference to the extraordinary circumstances that the Melbourne Summer Series of events were played under in order to enable overseas competitors to play the AO after 14 days of government-imposed quarantine due to the worldwide coronavirus pandemic.
Barty had not played a tournament in 11 months but, after shaking off a little rust, has found her best form, although she missed out on valuable court time when Serena Williams pulled out of their semi-final.
She and her adoring Australian fans are hoping she can break her country’s 43-year singles AO title drought, and she says she unfazed by all the rising local expectation.
“There’s no extra pressure for me, that’s for sure,” she said. “It’s the same whether it’s a Grand Slam or a tour event. I love playing in Australia.
“I go into this Australian Open excited, well prepared and ready to play.”
Barty received an eye-catching trophy, a wood carving of a wombat, which was designed by a local indigenous artist.
“It’s a very touching tribute to my heritage, and it’s very cool to have some indigenous art,” said Barty, whose father is Aboriginal.
The 24-year-old was made to work hard for her second WTA title on home soil, alongside the Adelaide title she claimed at the start of last season, but she ultimately had plenty of weapons in her armoury to see off the former French Open and Wimbledon champion in a gripping contest.
“I’m happy with the progression of the level of tennis through the week,” Barty added.
Muguruza’s powerful baseline game, however, frazzled an errant Barty early in the encounter, but the Spaniard was unable to close out the first set on serve in the 9th game and the Aussie forced a tiebreak, which she dominated.
Barty opened the match with a service game that contained 3 aces, but that did not preclude Muguruza from winning the following game on her return and move ahead 2-1.
The World No 1 kept within touching distance, though, using her rallying forehands to pull back level at 3-3, only for Muguruza to power ahead again with another break for 5-4, but the Spaniard could not serve out the set as Barty levelled again.
Barty zipped to a commanding 4-0 lead in the tiebreak and held on from there, clinching the challenging opener with another rally forehand winner.
“Today I had to try and neutralise as best I can, then get on the front foot as soon as I could,” said Barty. “It’s not always just about the tennis sometimes, it’s about how you can control the court.
“I felt like I moved great today and was able to squeeze the court a lot of the times, make Garbiñe press a little bit, which was an important part of the match.”
Gaining in confidence, Barty continued to hit the lines and, running Muguruza ragged, cracked another close set at 4-4 when she earned her 4th service break of the day with a winning groundstroke.
Barty served out the match with ease, racing to triple match point, then ending the affair with a deft lob.
“Overall it was a pretty solid performance,” Barty said. “I’m still my harshest critic at times. That’s the challenge of sport every day, is trying to get better and better.”
Barty struck 28 winners, including 11 aces, doubling Muguruza’s winner count on the day.
The Spaniard was forced into an unprecedented 40 errors by the resilient Barty, who had to wrestle back 2 breaks of serve before winning the tight opening set breaker and going up an early break in the second.
While last year’s losing finalist at Melbourne Park was in no mood to give up her mini winning streak without a fight and got the affair back on serve,, crucially, Barty broke again for 5-4, who served out to love for the match, sealing the victory with a well-judged lob over Muguruza into the backcourt.
Her title triumph will only fuel expectation that she can give Australia its first Grand Slam singles winner on home soil since Chris O’Neil in 1978.
“I’m just trying to come out here and do the best that I can,” she added.
“I’ve done the preparation, I’ve eaten my Brussels sprouts, done everything to put myself in a position that I can go out there and perform at the best level I can.”
The 2019 French Open champion, a semi-finalist here last year, will have a day off to recuperate before opening her campaign against Danka Kovinic, the World No 77 from Montenegro, the first night match on Rod Laver Arena on Tuesday, while Muguruza opens play on MCA against Russia’s Margarita Gasparyan, also on Tuesday.
Elsewhere, the Japanese duo of Shuko Aoyama & Ena Shibahara picked up the Yarra Valley Classic doubles title with a 6-3 6-4 victory over Anna Kalinskaya of Russia & Viktoria Kuzmova of Slovakia.
The trophy continues an impressive run for the pair in 2021 as they have racked up two consecutive titles, with their team record now standing at 8-0, having also triumphed at Abu Dhabi, the first event of the season.
“Communication is really key for us,” Shibahara said, after their win. “Even throughout the match, when we’re down, we try and talk it out, and I think that’s been helping us a lot.
“Even if we’re losing in the match, I feel like we’re able to come back because we have that communication.
“We spend most of our time with each other and I think that adds to our chemistry on court.
“We just know that we have each other’s back no matter what, and even if I’m not playing the best, she brings it out of me, and vice versa.”
Aoyama had high praise for her partner as well, saying that Shibahara ‘has good energy, great serve, great volley — everything she has is a good shot, so we can make point options’.