MELBOURNE, Australia — When Ash Barty won her first-round Australian Open match against qualifier Lesia Tsurenko in just 54 minutes, she produced a wry smile, a little fist bump, and clapped to the crowd with a couple of taps on her racket.
It was business as usual for Barty, the world No. 1 for the third straight year at her home Grand Slam. She knew challenges lay ahead, because in 2020 she was beaten in the semifinals by eventual champion Sofia Kenin, while in 2021, it was a shock quarterfinals exit at the hands of 25th seed Karolina Muchova.
Barty, a champion on the clay at Roland Garros in 2019, and on the grass at Wimbledon in 2021, just couldn’t seem to make the final leap on the blue hardcourts in Melbourne.
It’s hardly a surprise. Tennis players are only human — Barty perhaps one of the most down to earth of all — and she had a weight on her shoulders that’s hard to fathom.
A 44-year drought for a local singles champion at the Australian Open — in a proud, tennis-mad nation — is a big deal. Heading into this fortnight, Australians had won 102 Grand Slam singles titles overall – second only to the United States. Melbourne is often self-described as the “sporting capital of the world,” and that 44-year drought is a discussion which surfaces in Australia every year without fail.
But back to the tennis. After Barty’s second-round match, it was the same – a smile, an acknowlegment of the crowd, and, you could clearly see, a focus on a greater goal. It was the same celebration for every match she played throughout the tournament. Even in her semifinal win over Madison Keys, she offered up a quiet fist pump, a wave to the crowd, and then it was back to business.
But Saturday night was different. Barty’s championship breakthrough was akin to a dam wall bursting; never one to reveal much during press conferences, post-match interviews, or on the court, Barty’s reaction on championship point was felt across the nation.
Emotion poured out. Barty, a 25-year-old proud Ngarigo Indigenous woman — and a dual-sport athlete who took time away from her tennis career to focus on her mental health and pick up a cricket bat — had achieved what so many big names couldn’t do in the previous 44 years. Pat Cash, Pat Rafter, Lleyton Hewitt and Sam Stosur all won Slams elsewhere, but could never clear the final hurdle at Melbourne Park.
Barty roared. She closed her eyes and screamed at the top of her lungs. And after she shook Danielle Collins‘ hand, she dropped her racket, made her way out to the centre of Rod Laver Arena, and roared again.
“It was a little bit surreal,” Barty said of her emotional release after winning championship point. “I think I didn’t quite know what to do or what to feel, and I think just being able to let out a little bit of emotion, which is a little bit unusual for me … was incredible tonight.
“I think being able to understand how much work my team and I have done behind the scenes and over the last few years, to get to this point to be able to have this opportunity was really special.”
Barty’s reaction was in stark contrast to her other major triumphs. Her first in Paris, she raised her arms in victory and mouthed “what the f—” to her box. At Wimbledon, the sport’s most iconic setting with a trophy rich in history, Barty ‘only’ fell to her haunches and covered her mouth before going to shake her opponent’s hand and celebrate with her team.
It’s clear what this Australian Open title means to Barty, though she knows it means more to everyone else than herself.
“[The media] were the ones who added fuel to the fire, because for us it was just the same processes and the same enjoyment, regardless of where we’re playing in the world, what round it is,” she said.
“That has no impact on how much I enjoy my tennis or how much I try and compete.”
The overwhelming emotions tell a slightly different story. When master of ceremonies Todd Woodbridge announced that a special guest would be presenting the trophy, Barty again betrayed her usually stoic demeanour.
“We’ve got a surprise,” Woodbridge said, before revealing that Evonne Goolagong Cawley, an Australian tennis legend and one of Barty’s personal friends, mentors, and heores, would be handing her the Daphne Akhurst Memorial Cup.
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Barty said she was completely blindsided: “I thought she wasn’t coming, and I’d spoken to her earlier in the week, and she was staying at home and not being able to travel down this year.
“So to have that surprise was amazing. I can’t believe Craig [Tiley] kept it a secret. It was really special just to be able to give her a hug. It’s the first time I’ve seen her in 12 months.
“We had a few hugs for a few different reasons, and to be able to actually see her in the flesh and chat to her was incredible. To be able to experience that together on such a big occasion, on such a beautiful court, and in a tournament that means so much to both of us, I think it was really nice to have her there just as someone to lean on when I wasn’t really sure what to do.
“She’s an amazing human being, and I’m very, very lucky to be able to call her a friend. Very lucky to be able to give her a hug in some of the biggest moments in my life.”
Barty never put pressure on herself to win the Australian Open, but it’s hard to fathom just how much the win means to Australia. In many ways, Australians are as relieved for Barty as they are ecstatic.
She said it herself in her press conference; Australia is “exceptionally lucky to be a Grand Slam nation.”
“I have been close (to winning the Australian Open) before, but I think now that we’ve been able to achieve this, I think [the media] doesn’t need to talk about [the 44-year drought] anymore,” she said in her press conference.
Ashleigh Barty says she didn’t know what to do in the moments after she won the Australian Open final vs. Danielle Collins.
“This fortnight, seven times I got to walk out onto a beautiful court with incredible fans and try and do the best I can do, and that’s all I could ask of myself.
“Now to be able to have this part of my dream kind of achieved is amazing, and I think I have to really understand that that came from the processes that we put in with my team and the people that are around me, because without them, I wouldn’t be half the person that I am.”
From humble beginnings — and we’ve all seen the photo of Ash as a youngster, a tiny plastic trophy and tennis racket in hand — to humbly winning her home Slam, Barty is on course to become an all-time great of her sport.
She can no longer be thought of as a placeholder world No. 1, or someone who’s only rising as others, like Serena Williams, are falling. In fact, she joins Williams, Novak Djokovic, Roger Federer, and Rafael Nadal as the only active players to have won a singles title on all three surfaces.
And if she had to offer that youngster in the famous photo a word of advice?
“Be patient, have fun, trust your gut. Every day of the week.”