As Ash Barty took her first steps onto Rod Laver Arena for her first Australian Open final at last, there was already no doubt about the completeness of her game, the integrity that she carries herself with and the historic career she is building before our eyes. But it still remained to be seen how she would handle and digest a moment in her life like nothing before it.

She did so with the composure of a champion who could go on to win so much more. Before an Australian crowd that cheered, groaned, and lived every moment with her on Rod Laver Arena, Barty calmly navigated the fire of Danielle Collins, recovering from a heavy second set deficit to win 6-3, 7-6(2) and win the Australian Open for the first time. 44 years later, Barty is the first Australian to win an Australian Open singles title since Chris O’Neil in 1978. She did not drop a set throughout.

With three grand slam titles to her name, Barty has joined Serena Williams to become the only active women’s players to hold grand slam titles on all three surfaces. Having spent much of the tournament, and recent years, speaking proudly of her Indigenous heritage, she continues to follow in the footsteps of four-time Australian Open champion Evonne Goolagong-Cawley.

As fans embarked on Melbourne Park in their thousands, they came wearing t-shirts and jumpers with Barty’s name and her two flags. So too did the celebrities; Rod Laver, Cathy Freeman, Russell Crow and O’Neil herself were all present to watch Australian sporting history unfold.

Both players started the match unaffected by the occasion. While Barty held serve efficiently through her first two service games, Collins, fearless as ever in her maiden grand slam final, opened the match battering flat backhands from all parts of the court. Collins made a move first, generating a breakpoint at 2-2, but Barty dismissed the breakpoint with a wicked angled forehand winner and then she closed out the game with an ace.

The momentum quickly swung and Barty uncorked her forehand on an important point again, nailing an inside-out forehand winner to earn her first break. Under pressure, Collins attempted a 151kmh second serve which sailed long. After calmly navigating her following service games, Barty closed out the first set with an ace.

Ash Barty roars with delight after sealing victory at Mebourne.
Ash Barty roars with delight after sealing victory at Mebourne. Photograph: Dave Hunt/AAP

Unsurprisingly, Collins was not shaken. She immediately responded, opening the second set with a series of great returns and after standing firm on the baseline while Barty slammed down an overhead volley broke serve to go 2-0 up. That quick break soon became a 5-1 lead as Collins imposed maximum pressure, nailing backhands, returning brilliantly and punctuating her victorious points with typical shouts of joy. Barty shrank. She missed forehands, routine volleys and even her trusty slice evaded her.

Then, at 1-5, Barty found clarity. She retrieved a break, pulling her forehand together to make stand at 3-5. With no margin for error, Barty returned impeccably with her forehand and the fans made their presence felt. Two points after Collins had complained to the umpire about interruptions from the crowd, the Rod Laver Arena erupted as Barty’s slice elicited a backhand error from Collins and she retrieved the break. The pair held until 6-6 but Barty played the tie-break of her life and made more history with a forehand passing shot winner.

Barty is already in her third season as the world number one and nobody else in the world is close to matching her week-to-week consistency. After spending the 2021 season completely out of her comfort zone, forced to spend six months away from Australia to Covid, here she has had the optimal preparation and demonstrated her strength.

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A statistical curiosity of Barty’s rise is that has not actually beaten a top 10 player in any of her three grand slam title runs. In this tournament, she has not faced a top 20 opponent. If she was any other player it would be worth discussing more. But Barty is actually at her best against the best – she has won 11 of her last 12 matches against top 10 opponents. It is rather a reflection of the parity that surrounds her, and how she stands alone as the tour’s leading force.

Source: The Guardian