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When the chips were down against Danielle Collins, old-school Ash Barty won in a new-school way
On the Australian's third Grand Slam singles title, and her first at home.
Published Jan 29, 2022
INTERVIEW: Danielle Collins, after her runner-up finish in the Australian Open final
The crowd in Rod Laver Arena was suddenly quiet, in a nervous way. The scoreboard, shockingly, said it was 1-5 in the second set. The opponent on the other side of the net was powering the ball into the corners and punctuating every winner with a full-throttle fist-pump. Ash Barty, who just a few minutes earlier seemed to have one hand on the Australian Open winner’s trophy, knew she had to find a Plan B.
Changing tactics hadn’t been necessary for Barty so far in 2022. She had played 10 matches and dropped one set. In Melbourne, she had cruised to the final by doing what she does best: Slicing her backhand crosscourt in one direction, driving her forehand crosscourt in the other direction, and winning important points with her serve. The strategy may sound simple, but her opponents had been utterly bamboozled by it. They had managed, collectively, to win just 20 games in 12 sets.
Barty had kept that momentum going through the first set of the final against Danielle Collins. But leading 6-3—and just six games from the title—something in her well-oiled game began to misfire. She missed three forehands and was broken. With a chance to break back, she missed a wide-open volley. She opened the door a crack, and Collins, never shy, strode through it. Now the American was the player who was dictating the crosscourt patterns, and dismissing the vaunted Barty slice with her powerful two-handed backhand.
For two weeks, the Australian had been praised for her varied, old-school, slice-based game. Now she realized that it wasn’t going to get her over the finish line.
“Once it was 1-5 down I just wanted to try and shift and be a little more aggressive, adjust a couple of things tactically just to get momentum if we went to a third,” Barty said. “So it was just important for me to try and stay in touch, and I knew that the crowd would love it if I could stay close and get involved.”
Barty outdid herself. Not only did she stay in touch; she avoided a third set entirely. She did it by hitting her most famous shot, her slice, less often. Instead of taking a page from the legends of old, she took a page from today’s top players, and started running around to hit as many forehands as she could. And it worked. Rather than giving Collins a look at a floating slice, Barty took charge of the rallies with sharply struck topspin forehands in all directions. She said she didn’t necessarily think she was going to win every point that way; the key was just to change the flow and pattern of the rallies.
“I think when I was able to be more aggressive, that was a change, and I was able to dominate with my forehand a bit more, particularly from being 5-1 down in the second set,” Barty said. “I just found a lot more forehands and tried to work harder with my feet and take half chances and create forehands even if they probably weren’t there, and I wasn’t too concerned if I was going to miss them.”
“It was more trying to change the look of the match than the outcome of the individual points.”
Barty would finish with 30 winners to Collins’ 17, and come all the way back from 1-5 down to win 6-3, 7-6 (2). In the tiebreaker, she hit an inside-out forehand winner to go up 3-0, and then, her confidence in full flow again, won the next point on a drop shot-skyhook smash combination that raised the roof in Laver. When her final forehand dropped into the corner for a winner, Barty, always the most controlled of athletes, let out a spontaneous primal scream of relief.
“It was a little bit surreal,” Barty said. “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, and I think being able to celebrate with everyone who was there in the crowd, the energy was incredible tonight.”
Barty won the title in front of Aussie tennis royalty. Rod Laver was there, and so was Chris O’Neil, the last Australian woman to win this title, in 1978. This was Barty’s third major, on a third surface, and it seals her place, if it wasn’t sealed before, as the player to beat in women’s tennis for the foreseeable future. As always, she was humble in victory.
“To be honest, I don’t really feel like I belong with those champions of our sport,” she said. “I’m still very much learning and trying to refine my craft and try and learn every single day and get better and better.”
It’s hard to imagine a more appropriate player to bring the Daphne Akhurst trophy back home. Barty, who has Indigenous roots on her father’s side, describes herself as a “true blue Aussie as true as they can come.” And she relished her chance to share the moment with another Indigenous Aussie champion, Evonne Goolagong.
Through this tournament, Barty showed that she can win by playing the game the old way, the way many of the Aussie legends did. Then, when she had to, she showed that could win by playing it the new way, too.