Ashleigh Barty had waited years for her coronation on home soil and, although she briefly buckled under the weight of a nation forced to bide their time far longer, the world No 1 was able to draw on all her resolve to wrestle that dream into reality.
The huge roar that filled Rod Laver Arena was a tale of relief as well as triumph. So measured, precise, and virtually unstoppable throughout the last fortnight in Melbourne, Barty had overcome an initial bout of tension to edge a nervous first set, only for her nerves to then badly betray her as her fiery opponent, Danielle Collins, mounted a determined fightback.
Barty had fallen to a 5-1 deficit in the second set, as her forehand wavered and even her footwork wearied under the strain, but managed to recompose herself and regain the same form that’s cemented her as the eminent player of this era. To her credit, Collins refused to roll over, but she couldn’t help but succumb to a crowning moment that had started to feel inevitable before the first ball of the tournament had even been struck. With Chris O’Neil in the crowd and Evonne Goolagong Cawley presenting Barty with the trophy, the torch was passed and Australia’s 44-year wait for a singles champion was finally brought to an end.
“This is a dream come true for me. I am so proud of being Aussie,” Barty said. “As an Aussie, the most important part of this tournament has been being able to share this experience with the fans. This crowd is one of the most fun I’ve played in front of.”
Although Barty had been the overwhelming favourite, having failed to drop a single set en route to the final, a 12,000-strong partisan crowd added a new and unfamiliar burden of pressure, even for a two-time grand slam champion. The sense of anticipation and expectation in Melbourne had been strained to an extreme level, although Barty rarely reveals her emotions, they were impossible to conceal in her play.
For Collins, the build-up might have been drastically different, but her path to the final had been no less momentous. A year ago, in the heat of the Australian summer, the American had collapsed on court during a practice session, such was the severity of an undiagnosed pain in her abdomen. It was only the advice of a friend, after MRI scans did nothing to reveal the source, that Collins underwent emergency surgery for endometriosis. The absence of pain has finally allowed the 27-year-old to properly fulfil her potential after an outstanding college career, and this was her first appearance in a grand slam final.
Those scenarios made for a first set that jangled with nerves, with Barty uncharacteristically timid and error-prone, while the shouts and fist pumps that usually accompany Collins’ matches were nowhere to be seen. But if Barty’s groundstrokes were tense, her serve remained a reliable and deadly metronome, and after the pair raced through their first two service games, it was the Australian who struck first. A fantastic forehand winner left Collins stuck in her tracks behind the baseline before an anxious second serve sailed way long to surrender the break. Barty closed out the set 6-3 comfortably and seemed to have returned somewhere near to her best, becoming more aggressive on the forehand and confounding Collins with a signature backhand slice, skidding low and cutting at the ankles.
But as much as Collins was transformed for the second set, matching Barty in gruelling rallies and fashioning emphatic winners, the Australian struggled to shake off another wave of angst. A double fault to start her opening service game was followed by two errant forehands and Collins sealed the break with an emphatic smash before clenching her first and roaring so emphatically the entire atmosphere around Rod Laver Arena felt punctured. Having held serve an astonishing 58 games in succession up until Sunday’s fourth-round victory against Amanda Anisimova, Barty was then broken for the second time in this set alone as a timid slice limped its way into the bottom of the net.
At that point, with Barty unravelling and Collins in full flight, punching the air after every winner, it felt as though a deciding set was a certainty and that the world No 1 would even be the underdog. But from that precipice, Barty was able to produce a remarkable recovery. The urgency and variety that usually underline her game returned in abundance, with Collins unable to withstand the tide of heavy forehands as Barty broke and then quickly held to close the gap to 3-5. Although Collins still had the chance to serve out the set, the pressure was palpable. The American complained about crowd noise during points but could do nothing to silence them after a nervous backhand clipped the net. The set was back on serve, headed to a tie-break, and Barty had sapped all the strength from Collins’ comeback.
Barty’s victory was sealed with a magnificent passing shot befitting of her champion’s status. It might not have been her greatest performance, but the celebrations that will continue long into the night in Melbourne told of the magnitude of what she has achieved. After a lifetime spent looking up to her idol Goolagong Cawley and a career headlined by the aim of following in the footsteps O’Neil left behind in 1978, Australia finally has another glorious homecoming.
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