For the fourth match in succession under the hefty weight of home pressure, Ash Barty stood before a taller, stronger opponent capable of hitting just about every tennis player in the world off the court. Each time her opponents have arrived on Rod Laver Arena armed with their biggest weapons, it has taken Barty little more than an hour to dismantle them with relative ease.
On Thursday night it was Madison Keys’ turn to experience the deep discomfort of Barty’s game, and she was beaten as soundly as all the others. After just 62 minutes Barty won 6-1, 6-3 to reach the Australian Open final for the first time. She has dropped just 21 games across six matches.
Saturday’s stage is now set. Barty will look to become the first Australian to win their home Open in 44 years, since Chris O’Neil in 1978. She is the first Australian woman to reach the singles final here since Wendy Turnbull in 1980.
“It’s unreal,” Barty said. “Honestly, it’s just incredible. I love this tournament, I love coming out here and playing in Australia. As an Aussie, we’re exceptionally spoiled that we’re a grand slam nation that we get to play at home. We get to play in our back yard. I’m just happy that I get to play my best tennis here. I enjoy it, I’ve done well and now we get a chance to play for a title. It’s unreal.”
In the final Barty will face Danielle Collins, the 27th seed, after the American rose to the occasion in her second grand slam semi-final and produced a ball-striking lesson of the highest standard. She eviscerated Iga Swiatek, the Polish seventh seed, 6-4, 6-1 to reach her first major final.
Like many of Barty’s opponents before her, Keys could only smile in her press conference as she relived the ordeal of facing the Australian in her current form. “It’s tough,” said Keys. “It sucks. I mean, she’s just playing incredibly well. You have a gameplan in your head but she’s just executing everything so well.”
Keys last played Barty at the 2019 French Open en route to Barty’s first grand slam title. She said that she feels Barty’s level has significantly improved since then, highlighted by her slice cutting through the court and the assertiveness with which she commands matches. Barty drew countless errors from Keys with her backhand slice, she pulled her on the run with sharp crosscourt forehand rallies and she did not hesitate to step inside her baseline with her forehand. “Obviously I was able to make Maddie uncomfortable and make her press, and that was kind of part of the plan as well,” she said.
Between them, Barty and Keys are the two best servers of this year’s tournament but the match-up demonstrated Barty’s all-around excellence on both serve and return, with 48% of her serves going unreturned, whereas Keys managed just 19%, a steep drop from her tournament average of 33%. Not only did Barty serve impeccably, but she also constantly put returns into play and refused to allow Keys free points.
As Barty digested her success, she looked back to her first Australian Open experience when she was 11 or 12 at a training camp, a moment that opened her eyes to what is possible in tennis.
“To see how professional it was and to see everyone going about their business was really eye-opening,” she said. “My first taste of it was in the juniors and I loved it. I think being able to get a taste of that kind of lit the flame. You wonder what you can achieve. You wonder what you can do.”
What Barty has done since is far beyond what she could have imagined. Over the past few years she has separated herself from the rest of the field, marking herself as the undisputed No 1 and leaving her defeated opponents in awe. On Saturday she will return to Rod Laver Arena to compete at home for her first Australian Open title.
Collins followed Barty shortly afterwards and, faced with the opportunity of her career, she was in the zone from the very beginning until the end. She demolished Swiatek’s second serve and finished with 27 winners to just 13 unforced errors. Such was the relentlessness of Collins’s aggression, Swiatek described the American’s shots as the hardest she has faced. “I was prepared for her playing [an] aggressive game, but I think that was the fastest ball I have ever played against in a match,” she said.
The route that Collins has trod to reach the pinnacle of her sport, a grand slam final, is notable in itself. She built her game on the public courts of Florida and she spent her youth playing college tennis at the University of Virginia. Since turning professional in 2016, she has had to navigate numerous serious health problems. Nine months ago, she underwent endometriosis surgery that included removing a tennis ball-sized cyst from her uterus. Three years earlier she was diagnosed with rheumatoid arthritis, an autoimmune disease.
Yet here she is. Collins will break into the top 10 and she will be the new American No 1 next week. “To be playing on this stage where so many of my idols as a kid played, it’s almost surreal,” said Collins. “This is just what we all, as kids, dream of doing. So it’s just such a special moment for me. I’m just trying to embrace all of it.”