Ashleigh Barty will fulfil a dream forged in childhood when she becomes the first Australian woman in more than 40 years to play for her home grand slam title.
The world number one went into her semi-final against Madison Keys on an expectant Rod Laver Arena having not come close to dropping a set all tournament and eased to a 6-1 6-3 victory in only 62 minutes.
Australia has been waiting for a women’s singles finalist since Wendy Turnbull back in 1980, with Chris O’Neal the last home champion in the women’s or men’s singles two years earlier.
Made Down Under ™️
— #AusOpen (@AustralianOpen) January 27, 2022
In the press room on Thursday evening, Barty looked back to her first memories of Melbourne Park, saying: “I would have only been 11 or 12 years old and came down for a training camp in the second week of the Australian Open.
“To see how professional it was and to see everyone going about their business was really eye-opening. 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.
“Over the last three or four years I’ve loved playing here in Australia. I’ve had my best results here over the last little period. It’s really exciting now that we get to play for a title on a Saturday at your home slam.”
This is the fourth year in a row that Barty has reached at least the quarter-finals, with her best run previously a semi-final showing in 2020.
It has been noticeable how relaxed the 25-year-old has been this year carrying the hopes of her nation, and she vowed to relish the occasion on Saturday when she takes on first-time slam finalist Danielle Collins.
Barty, who won the French Open in 2019 and Wimbledon last summer, said: “Absolutely embrace it. You have to. It’s fun. It’s brilliant to be playing in the business end of your home slam. I’m not going to lie about that. It’s amazing.
“I think being able to experience it multiple times has been incredible, but Saturday’s going to be a new experience for me. So I go out there and embrace it, smile, try and do the best that I can and whatever happens, happens.
“It’s been an incredible January, an incredible summer for us. I’m really looking forward to having one last crack here to really go out there and enjoy it.”
Keys had blasted her way through the draw in an emphatic return to form , taking out two top-10 seeds in Paula Badosa and Barbora Krejcikova in the last two rounds, but Barty has looked a class apart all fortnight.
Shots from Keys that would have been winners against almost anyone else came back with interest, forcing the nervous American to go for more, and to miss.
Asked about the experience of playing Barty in this form, Keys said with a rueful smile: “It’s tough. It sucks. She’s just playing incredibly well. You have a game plan in your head but she’s just executing everything so well. She’s serving incredibly well, so you don’t get any free points on that.
“Her slice is coming in so much lower and deeper than it was in the past, so it’s hard to do anything on that. Then you try to play to her forehand and she can open you up there.
“I think she’s playing some really, really good tennis, but she’s also, it just seems, so locked in and focused. I have played her a handful of times, and this is easily the best I think she’s ever been playing.
“I think the rest of us are watching it thinking, ‘Wow, this is incredible’, but when you watch her, she seems completely in control of all of it.”
Collins was almost as emphatic in defeating seventh seed Iga Swiatek, the feisty American powering her way to a 6-4 6-1 triumph.
— wta (@WTA) January 27, 2022
Collins, ranked 30, was playing in her second grand slam semi-final after also making the last four in Melbourne in 2019 and has returned to the top of the game following endometriosis surgery last spring.
The 28-year-old’s brand of first-strike tennis was simply too much for Pole Swiatek, who won only three points on her second serve during the match.
“It feels amazing,” said Collins. “It’s been such a journey and it doesn’t happen overnight. It’s incredible to be on this stage and especially with the health challenges, I’m just so grateful. I couldn’t be happier.”
On taking on Barty, Collins added: “To play against the number one player in the world in her home country, I think it’s going to be really spectacular.”