Ashleigh Barty and Danielle Collins lost a total of nine games between them Thursday to advance to the Australian Open final.
They were dominating performances. Afterward they spoke of the hard yards they’ve put in to reach this point, and as importantly, the trust they have in their games.
Even with the top-ranked Barty conceding she didn’t serve up to her standards, she never doubted it would bail her out.
“I didn't quite have my rhythm on the first serve, but when I needed it most it was there,” she said in press after beating Keys. “I know I can just throw it up and really trust it, go after my spots and try and get free points and back myself in.”
For Collins, it was belief in her tactics.
“There wasn't a lot getting in my way,” she said Thursday. “I was in really good rhythm, hitting the ball really clean, moving the ball around well. Kind of, yeah, just playing some really solid tennis.”
Barty, who is aiming to become the first home champion Down Under since 1978, is the clear favorite. But Collins has showed she belongs on this stage. Against Swiatek, Collins rocked 27 winners, and it was evident from the outset, the match was going to be decided on her racquet. In her post-match press conference, Swiatek said Collins hit the fastest ball she ever played against.
Current form aside, the final of a Grand Slam is a different beast. More eyeballs, more on the line, more pressure.
Can Collins upset Barty? Here’s a closer look at both players:
What is the most impressive thing about Barty's dominant run to her first Australian Open final? Is it the 21 games she has lost through six matches, an average of fewer than two per set? Is it the blink-and-you-missed-it total court time of 6 hours and 6 minutes? Is it the fact that her opponents are quick to agree the World No.1 is in a different league?
"I think she's definitely living in everyone's head a little bit," Jessica Pegula said after a 6-2, 6-0 quarterfinal loss. "I don't think anyone is going to feel great going out to play her because they know they have to play really well."
Perhaps the answer is that Barty, playing with the weight of a nation on her shoulders, has put together her run with an alarmingly casual air.
Ashleigh Barty’s Road to the #AusOpen Final:— wta (@WTA) January 27, 2022
Round 1: d. Tsurenko 6-0, 6-1
Round 2: d. Bronzetti 6-1, 6-1
Round 3: d. Giorgi  6-2, 6-3
Round 4: d. Anisimova 6-4, 6-3
Quarterfinal: d. Pegula  6-2, 6-0
Semifinal: Keys 6-1, 6-3
Will face Collins in the Final. pic.twitter.com/3T8MH0csEx
"She's playing very within herself, and it just seems like everything is really working for her right now without playing unbelievable tennis for her," Madison Keys said after her 6-1, 6-4 loss in the semifinals. "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."
The key word there is "control." There is no better neutralizer than Barty, who speaks often of her desire to make her opponents "uncomfortable" and put the match "on my terms." She does that by countering her opponents' formidable toolbox with her overflowing shed. Her dizzying array of slices, pinpoint serving, speed and forehand are deployed seamlessly thanks to her tactical acumen. Barty simply does not let you do what you want to do. And then you press. Things go downhill quickly from there.
Collins will be Barty's fourth straight power player in Melbourne. Barty has defeated Camila Giorgi, Anisimova, Pegula and Keys in succession. Anisimova was the only one of the quartet to win four games in a set and remains the only player to break Barty’s serve (which she did once) over the fortnight.
Here are some key stats to ponder (Barty’s number’s to the left):
- Aces: 35 vs. 24
- First-serve points won: 83% vs. 76%
- Second-serve points won: 59% vs. 51%
- Break points saved: 93% vs. 63%
- Service games won: 98% vs. 82%
- Returns in: 81% vs. 74%
- Return points won vs. opponents’ first serve: 47% vs. 36%
- Return points won vs. opponents’ second serve: 59% vs. 60%
- Break points won: 58% vs. 44%
- Return games won: 57% vs. 41%
21 - Ashleigh #Barty has dropped 21 games to reach the final at the #AO2022: in 2000s, only Serena Williams (16 at the US Open 2013 and 19 at Flushing Meadows 2012) and Venus Williams (20 at Wimbledon 2009) have lost fewest games to reach a Grand Slam final. Strong.— OptaAce (@OptaAce) January 27, 2022
The unknowable is how Barty will handle the occasion. She is bidding to end Australia's 44-year-drought for a homegrown women's singles champion. The crowd will be roaring louder than Centre Court last summer, reminding her at every turn of the momentous feat she's trying to accomplish.
But ESPN analyst and former doubles star Rennae Stubbs offered a decisive counter to that concern. In her view, nothing will ever be as pressure-packed for Barty as what she endured in the Wimbledon final last summer. That was her ultimate dream, the one trophy she wanted more than any others. That experience will serve her well come Saturday.
Barty has won 20 of 21 sets to start 2022. She has looked unbreakable, unflappable and unbothered to start the season. It would take a significant dip in form Saturday to give Collins the space to take control of the match.
So, here’s how good the 28-year-old American Collins is feeling about things:
Serving at 4-1, 30-15, second set in her semifinal against Iga Swiatek, she dropped a beast of a second serve on the “T” for an ace. While Swiatek shrugged and moved to the other side of the court, there was no reaction from Collins – who is usually far more demonstrative.
When she closed it out a few minutes later, Collins was oddly muted with a small wave, a hop, a 360-degree spin and a polite racquet clap. You’d never know she had just advanced to her first Grand Slam final.
“It feels amazing,” Collins said in her on-court interview. “It’s been such a journey, and it doesn’t happen overnight. It’s so many years of hard work, hours at an early age on court. Yesterday I was talking about all the early mornings my dad would get up with me and practice with me before school. It’s just incredible to be on this stage.”
It’s one thing to be on the stage, but can she possibly challenge Barty, who has looked the best she ever has in 112 weeks at No.1?
That’s a hard yes.
Barty has a 3-1 head-to-head advantage, but look at the past two matches, both played in Australia. Barty took the 2020 Adelaide semifinal – decided in a third-set tiebreak. Collins won the 2021 Adelaide Round of 16 match in straight sets. That’s pretty much a wash.
Collins, who reached the semifinals here three years ago, loves Melbourne Park. She dismantled Swiatek 6-4, 6-1 – winning the first four games of each set.
Danielle Collins’ Road to the #AusOpen Final:— wta (@WTA) January 27, 2022
Round 1: d. Dolehide 6-1, 6-3
Round 2: d. Konjuh 6-4, 6-3
Round 3: d. Tauson 4-6, 6-4, 7-5
Round 4: d. Mertens  4-6, 6-4, 6-4
Quarterfinal: d. Cornet 7-5, 6-1
Semifinal: d. Swiatek  6-4, 6-1
Will face Barty in the Final. pic.twitter.com/Gxxu6kJIwL
“I have certainly added a little variety to my game the last couple of years,” she said, “but this is my Plan A.”
As in aggressive. Her most effective shot – in fact, one of the game’s finest – is her two-handed crosscourt backhand. She needs to ride that weapon against Barty, hitting it to her backhand early and often. She also needs to attack Barty’s second serve. Collins won an astounding 18 of 21 points on Swiatek’s second serve.
Collins has never been better. She’ll break into the Top 10 next week, a career high, and be the No.1-ranked American. Since last July, she’s won 32 of 39 matches. She’s a woman in a hurry; Collins has taken all her changeovers at the Australian Open standing up.
“For whatever reason in this tournament, it seems like the clock is going quicker,” Collins said. “I don’t really feel like I have time to sit down. I’ve just been standing up – and standing up when I sleep at night.”
Barty may have trouble sleeping the night before the final. There’s a lot at stake. She is well aware that she can be the first Australian woman to win the title in 44 years. Though it didn’t hurt her, she was nervous very early in her past two matches, throwing in some uncharacteristic errors. If that opening presents itself again, it’s one Collins must seize. – Greg Garber