Ashleigh Barty’s smile lit up Centre Court as the Australian dazzled on her way past a battle-hardened Angelique Kerber to reach her first Wimbledon final.
It was a match inspired by some of the most illustrious names in the sport’s history, with Steffi Graf’s influence etched into the make-up of three-time Grand Slam winner Kerber.
But if the burden of history weighed heavy on Barty, the Australian’s demeanour did an excellent job at hiding it during her 6-3 7-6(3) win.
Despite her immense stature in the game as the world’s No 1-ranked player and a former French Open champion, it is this corner of London that has always been Barty’s “dream”, as she delighted in telling a Centre Court crowd thrilled by her sublime tennis.
A Wimbledon final was just one match away, but the significance meant so much more than just that. Her idol and friend Evonne Goolagong Cawley won her first title at the All England Club 50 years ago, wearing a scalloped hem on her regulation whites. It’s a look that Barty is emulating in her own tribute at these championships. The legendary Australian’s title in 1971 was among seven grand slam singles titles, with her legacy inspiring Barty’s journey.
To meet Kerber, specifically, signified a critical arc in her illustrious career. The German famously dispatched the queen of tennis, Serena Williams, three years ago on Centre Court for her third grand slam, making this the toughest final hurdle before arriving at the sport’s biggest stage.
Kerber’s hard-fought win in the final of the Sydney Open lit a fire inside Barty three years ago, sparking her dominant run and driving her “to hang tough in brutal moments”. In fact, it rekindled a joy and passion for the sport, which she maintains even after suffering defeat.
And this high-quality semi-final conjured up plenty of opportunities to test Barty’s mettle and the validity to those words about revamping her game.
The finesse and creativity of Barty early on saw the 25-year-old capitalise on a nervy start from Kerber, racing clear and clinching the first set 6-3. It was a complete display of tennis with 17 winners and three of three break points saved. She really was grasping the moment.
But Kerber could not be kept down for long and the 33-year-old soon found her range, unleashing an array of devastating ground strokes.
And before you knew it, the momentum had swung, with Barty forced to join her opponent in peppering the chalk markings in a candidate for match of the tournament.
Kerber’s relentless approach was proving too hot to handle and soon earned the lefty a shot to serve out the set at 5-3 and level the match.
But Barty’s resilience shone brightly just as her route to the final started to flicker, breaking to love, with an overhead smash kissing the baseline.
A tie-break soon followed and Kerber has barely had time to digest passing up the chance to level the match when Barty raced into a 6-0 lead. Kerber displayed the heart of a champion, despite a demoralising start, sensing little else to lose and hammering winners past the Aussie to rattle off three successive points.
But in a tribute to Barty’s game and the demands it places on her opponents, Kerber predictably found the net in the subsequent point, handing her victory.
Now one win away from becoming the fourth woman in the Open era to win the singles title after glory as a junior at SW19, Karolina Pliskova awaits.
Relief quickly painted all over Barty’s face, hours after catching Australian rules football in the early hours of this morning alongside her team.
“That’s the best part about everything,” Barty said after victory. “We laugh every day, we smile every day, sometimes in the heartache, being able to lighten the mood.
“Being able to come out and play on a court like this with a crowd like this, there’s nothing better.”
If Barty had to hang in and overcome brutal moments, then so too did Pliskova, who absorbed Aryna Sabalenka’s brute force from the back of the court, including 18 aces, to force an upset.
The Belarusian, 23, must learn to refine her game beneath the instinctive way she is able to bludgeon the ball, as Pliskova’s craft and guts to trade saw her through to her second grand slam final and first at the championships.
Pliskova may find that the beautiful brutality of her semi-final will switch towards a match of placement, with Barty brilliantly adept at making life tremendously difficult for her opponents on her first serve despite her small stature comparatively to many on the WTA.
She won 88 per cent of the points on her first serve against Kerber, while Pliskova managed to claim 78 per cent of the points on her first serve on Thursday evening.
It promises to be a tremendous final with a test in accuracy, inventiveness and physicality to crown a new queen on the grass at Wimbledon.
Join our new commenting forum
Join thought-provoking conversations, follow other Independent readers and see their replies