Ashleigh Barty walked to the microphone on the court at Rod Laver Arena on Thursday at the Australian Open with the slightest hint of emotion on her face. But when Jim Courier, the on-court interviewer, announced just exactly what she had done, she couldn’t help but smile.
It has been 44 years since an Australian won the title at the Australian Open, and with each passing year, the pressure feels more pronounced, the expectations on those atop the game even greater. As the No. 1 player in the world since the 2019 season and a major champion at Wimbledon and the French Open, Barty has long been seen as the country’s best hope to reverse course.
And now she will finally have her chance. In front of the adoring eyes of her nation and around the world, Barty will face Danielle Collins on Saturday with a chance to make history, for herself and for all of Australia. Barty, a student of the game, knows exactly what it would mean. She always has.
“I do [know],” Barty, 25, said ahead of the tournament. “I can’t do any more than I can try. That’s all I can do. If it doesn’t happen, it doesn’t happen.
“I just have to hope that everyone understands that I’m giving it my best crack. It doesn’t always work out exactly how you want to. But you go about it the right way, you do the right things and try and give yourself the best chance, that’s all you can do.”
While Australians have had success abroad over the past five decades, it’s been a dramatically different story on home soil. Sam Stosur, Lleyton Hewitt, Patrick Rafter and Pat Cash have all won Grand Slam singles titles, but in Melbourne, along with Barty’s, the five combine for just four final appearances.
How did a nation so rich in tennis history, resources and talent get here?
First played in 1905 for the men and in 1922 for the women, and with draws predominately of local players due to its isolated geographic location, Australians dominated their home event until the start of the Open era in 1968. Even after that point, and with more and more foreign stars competing at the tournament, Australians Rod Laver, Margaret Court, Ken Rosewall, John Newcombe and Evonne Goolagong still were victorious.
When Chris O’Neil won in 1978, no one knew what we know now, and likely as few would have predicted it would be the last time for an Australian champion.
After a decade of dominant brilliance from Goolagong, in which she won four Australian Open titles, as well as trophies at the French Open and Wimbledon, O’Neil arrived at the 1978 Australian Open ranked No. 110 in the world. Her 6-3, 7-6 (3) victory over Betsy Nagelsen was such a shock that her name was misspelled on the scoreboard, her surname given an extra L. She became the first unseeded winner of a Grand Slam.
After O’Neil’s triumph in 1978, Mary Sawyer reached the final the following year, with Wendy Turnbull emulating her feat in 1980. Turnbull emerged as the next best-placed Australian challenger for the title, but lost in both the 1981 and 1984 semifinals to Chris Evert. Belinda Cordwell finished the decade with another final four appearance, but lost out to Helena Sukova in straight sets.
Not one Australian on the women’s side managed to reach the final eight in the 1990s, but they did have two representatives in the quarterfinals after the start of the new millennium with Alicia Molik in 2005, and Jelena Dokic in 2009. Having won the 2011 US Open, Sam Stosur became the country’s primary hope, but, in 20 main draw singles attempts at the tournament, she failed to advance past the fourth round. Stosur, who retired from playing singles following her second-round loss last week, was aware her career run at the event was deemed as a failure.
“In some ways I was never able to play my best tennis here in Australia a lot of the time,” Stosur said. “I still made fourth round a couple of times, but that seems to be not a good result when you’ve won a Grand Slam in another country.”
Somehow, it’s been an even longer drought on the men’s side. Since Mark Edmondson won the 1976 Open, Cash, Hewitt and Kim Warwick have reached the final, but the 46-year deficit remains. It will live to see at least another year, as no Australian male advanced past the fourth round this fortnight.
The most successful decade for the Aussie men was the 1980s, where Warwick reached the 1980 final, and Cash reached both the 1987 and 1988 final. Though Cash would end up taking the 1987 Wimbledon title, he could never achieve that same feat back home.
The 1990s were a dismal spell for men’s singles at their own Slam, with just two quarterfinalists — Brett Steven in 1993 and Mark Woodforde in 1996 — but the emergence of Rafter and Hewitt gave them hope near the start of the century. Rafter’s best finish was a 2001 five-set semifinal defeat to Andre Agassi, while Hewitt — having won the US Open in 2001 and Wimbledon a year later — reached the 2005 final in Melbourne only to lose to Marat Safin in four sets. Since then, the best finish for a homegrown talent was Nick Kyrgios’ quarterfinal defeat to Andy Murray in 2015.
In 2008, O’Neil was asked the obligatory question about whether anyone was going to end the unlucky streak. “I just say it every year — I would absolutely love another Aussie to win it and take it over,” she said.
O’Neil and Australia are still waiting.
By the time Barty arrived on the scene with a Wimbledon junior title as a 15-year-old in 2011, Australian tennis was desperate for a savior. She reached the Australian Open doubles final (paired with fellow countrywoman Casey Dellacqua) in 2013 and looked to be well on her way to superstar status.
But the early pressure was simply too much. She took a 1½-year break from the sport and even dabbled in professional cricket during her time away. Months after returning, she reached the third round at the 2017 Australian Open. A year and three WTA final appearances later, Barty went to Melbourne as the Australian No. 1. The questions about whether she could finally end the drought were swift.
She embraced the demands of the home crowd but fell again in the third round. Still the hype reached new heights the following year when she came to the Open as one of the favorites. She understood.
“We’ve had legends throughout all of tennis history in Australia,” Barty said at the time. “Australians are hungry for sport. They love it. They’re addicted to it. I think at this time of the year it always floats around with tennis that they’re looking for an Australian player, in particular, to go deep and have a really good run.”
Barty’s best finish entering the 2022 tournament was a 2020 semifinal loss to eventual victor Sofia Kenin. She reached the quarterfinals in 2019 and 2021.
Still, she has won nearly everywhere else. She recorded a tour-leading five titles in 2021, including Wimbledon, and earned an Olympic bronze medal in mixed doubles.
Having held the No. 1 world ranking for 112 weeks, the hype around Barty — in front of a crowd who had spent much of the past two years in pandemic lockdown — was at an all-time high when she took the court for her opening-round match. Even with crowd restrictions due to the virus, the “Aussie, Aussie, Aussie” chants were loud and plentiful.
It’s not easy to win a Grand Slam under any circumstances. The stakes are high, the stress is enormous, and the talent and quality of opposition even more so.
But now try adding to all that the expectations of an entire nation, and having to see it all on a daily basis. Like other Aussies before her, Barty’s face is everywhere in Australia — on billboards, the sides of trams and on television — and especially during the last two weeks of January. Her run at the tournament is intensely followed and her results frequently top the front page of newspapers and websites in her country.
Her matches throughout the 2022 tournament have all been played on Rod Laver Arena, the main show court, with highly spirited partisan crowds and usually during the prime-time slot. Even 20-time major champion Rafael Nadal hasn’t been given such considerations. It would be impossible for even the humble, good-natured Barty not to know that she is the center of attention.
“There’s this buildup of pressure, starting weeks before the event and throughout, and when you finally make it to the last days of the tournament, you can feel a sense of expectation sitting on your shoulder for a long, long time,” said Darren Cahill, a former top-ranked Australian player who reached the Australian Open doubles final in 1989. “It can become a very heavy weight. It’s a difficult thing to do, and I think it’s more difficult to win in your home nation than it is in a foreign nation”
Stosur talked about fans approaching her in the supermarket to talk about her results. After being stunned in the first round of the 2012 Australian Open, just months after her maiden Slam victory in New York, Stosur said the pressure took a physical toll.
“I think for sure it affects you physically,” Stosur said. “That’s probably the easiest sign for the outside people to see. Obviously I know what’s going on inside. Physically, I think it is easy to see that you tighten up, your shoulders do get tight, you don’t hit through the ball.
“When anyone’s nervous, I think the first thing that goes is your footwork. You don’t move your feet as well. Once that breaks down, it’s easy for other things to start breaking down.”
So far in 2022, Barty has not shown such signs of nerves, panic or doubt. In fact, she has been steely in her resolve and has handled her opponents with ease. She is yet to drop a set thus far — losing a total of just 21 games — and had a streak of 63 consecutive service games held spanning over eight matches.
By the quarterfinals, Barty was the last Aussie standing, in either singles draw, after she beat Lesia Tsurenko (6-0, 6-1), Lucia Bronzetti (6-1, 6-1), Camila Giorgi (6-2, 6-3) and Amanda Anisimova (6-4, 6-3). She became the first Australian to advance to four straight quarterfinals at Melbourne Park since the tournament moved to the grounds in 1988, and the first to do so at the tournament since Turnbull in the early 1980s.
And her quarterfinal victory over Jessica Pegula was the most impressive of all. Barty was nearly flawless in the 6-2, 6-0 contest, and she needed just over an hour on court. Pegula later called it a “master class from Ash.”
Her semifinal rout of Keys, who had recorded two top-10 wins in her previous two matches, was more of the same. Barty dominated from the start, breaking Keys in the first game of the match, and never looked back.
With each match, the hopes have only continued to grow. Even Laver, in attendance on the court which bears his name for the match against Anisimova, is among the believers.
‘It would be great for me if she won the Australian,” Laver said. “I know the competition is pretty strong out there, but she’s beaten most of these players on the circuit. It’s just a matter if she can play her game when the chips are down. When she’s playing her great tennis, she’s unbeatable.
“She’s ready to say something big — and I think this particular tournament might be the one that could bring her to another level.”
Barty continues to take it all in stride, flashing her now-trademark thumbs up and grin after matches and interviews. A self-professed “hermit,” she has spent little time anywhere other than the tournament grounds or her hotel, and has been perhaps shielding herself from it all whenever possible.
Cahill said that can only help her, as has a uniquely 2022 scenario.
“She’s very, very typical Australian and got a really simple Australian life,” said Cahill, now an ESPN analyst and Anisimova’s coach. “And with that comes a really relaxed attitude of, ‘Let’s go out there, let’s give it our best, let’s do everything we can to prepare the right way, and as long as I fight, and as long as I control the things I can control, which is fighting as hard as I can and having a great attitude on court, what’ll be, will be.’
“I actually think something that may have helped a little bit is that the Novak [Djokovic] situation really dominated the coverage. For two weeks leading in and up until the first day, everything was about Djokovic. So that took away a little bit from people in the media talking about who has a chance to win, and whilst that’s not great for tennis, it helped remove some of that pressure on her shoulders early on. She was able to ease into the attention.”
But she has gotten used to being in the spotlight and handling pressure, and that has come through experience. One thing Barty does know for certain is that she’s changed since her semifinal loss to Kenin two years ago.
“I’ve grown as a person, I’ve grown as a player,” Barty said Tuesday. “I feel like I’m a more complete tennis player. I’ve obviously got a couple more years of experience under my belt and in handling different situations and being able to problem solve out on the court …
“I’m absolutely loving playing out here and it’s bringing a smile on my face regardless of what is happening during the points. And it’s been a lot of fun so far. So hopefully there’s more left.”
It seems as if Barty is at the center of a perfect storm, with her incredible play, resilient spirit and having become accustomed to the glare of the burning spotlight. The odds are very much in her favor, but nothing is predictable in tennis.
The odds are very much in her favor, but nothing is predictable in tennis. The final on Saturday won’t be easy. Barty owns a 3-1 career record over Collins, but Collins won their most recent meeting in the round of 16 at Adelaide in 2021 and has been on a tear of her own in Melbourne. Collins dismantled 2020 French Open champion Iga Swiatek, 6-4, 6-1, in the semifinals.
Barty’s coach, Craig Tyzzer, who is also Australian, said they don’t talk about what’s at stake and insists the preparation is no different than it would be anywhere else. “Don’t want to bring anything new in or make it more than what it actually is,” he said this week.
Turnbull was the last Aussie to reach the final of their home Slam, but her experience will be vastly different to Barty’s. There certainly were many eyes on her match — Elton John even gave her an unlikely morale boost halfway through with an encouraging note from the stands — but as it had only been two years since O’Neil’s victory, no one was talking about a drought then.
But they are now, and that includes Turnbull herself. In an interview in 2020, she echoed all Australian tennis fans. “I knew I was the last one but when you put it in years, oh my god, that’s way too long,” she said. “It’s time for somebody else’s name to go on there.”
And Saturday, at Rod Laver Arena, it’s Barty’s turn to do just that and end the 44-year-wait for more.