Backpedaling as the lob descended, Ashleigh Barty launched herself into a space she deemed appropriate. Hanging for a considerable moment, she cracked the overhead – ridiculously athletic, crisp and clean for a winner.
As the crowd roared, she even indulged herself with a mild fist pump before wiping her face with her wristband.
It was the fourth point of a second-set tiebreak, the fourth in her favor, and it was the decisive, emphatic blow in a 6-3, 7-6 (2) victory over Danielle Collins. And so, Barty is your 2022 Australian Open champion, a turn of events that seemed inevitable for the better part of the fortnight.
The headline, understandably, was the end of a painful 44-year famine for this proud nation. Barty is the first Australian player, man or woman, to win this title since Chris O’Neil in 1978. She was on hand Saturday night, along with Rod Laver Arena’s full complement of anxious Aussies that included Laver himself, along with Evonne Goolagong Cawley, Russell Crowe and Olympians Ian Thorpe and Cathy Freeman.
But the enormous elephant in the room – redundant, yes, but this can’t be overstated – can anybody beat Ash Barty going forward?
Despite the sheer pressure that has paralyzed so many Australian players before her, she rose to meet the moment. As dominant as Barty was these past two weeks, she showed us something different in the final: grit and fight, which she hadn’t needed until the final. Barty was down 5-1 in that second set and ripped off four games in a row to set the course for the tiebreak.
After major triumphs it’s easy to rush to supposedly definitive judgments, but there’s some compelling evidence that the temperature, the chemistry of the WTA has been profoundly altered, perhaps for some time.
Introducing the only women in the Open Era to win their first three Grand Slam singles titles in Paris, London and Melbourne:— wta (@WTA) January 29, 2022
🇦🇺 Evonne Goolagong Cawley
🏆 1971 Roland-Garros
🏆 1971 Wimbledon
🏆 1974 #AusOpen
🏆 2019 Roland-Garros
🏆 2021 Wimbledon
🏆 #AO2022 pic.twitter.com/pXcUGFxWtf
This is the third major title for the 25-year-old Barty – and the second in the past three. She’s 3-0 in finals. It may escape a cursory glance, but this was Barty’s first hard-court major. She’s won her three Grand Slam singles titles on three different surfaces. As it stands, Simona Halep and Garbiñe Muguruza are still without that big hard-court win.
“It’s amazing to be able to have this experience and this opportunity on three different surfaces and be really consistent across the board,” Barty told reporters afterward. “Ultimately that was one of the biggest challenges that [early mentor] Jim [Joyce] set out for me when I was young was to be a complete player and be really consistent across all surfaces and be able to play on all surfaces.
“So to have a Grand Slam title on each surface is pretty amazing. I never probably thought it would ever happen to me.”
Only one other active woman owns major wins on three different surfaces – Serena Williams, who turned 40 last September. That’s a good club in which to be a member. There’s more, too. Barty dropped only 30 games in seven matches, marking only the fifth time this century that a Grand Slam champion lost 30 games or fewer. Three of those other four belong to Serena.
Barty – quite capable of subtlety and nuance – is easily the most complete player in the game, without a notable weakness.
Dominant serve? Check.
Wicked slice backhand that rarely comes up into the hitting zone? Check.
Absurd variety? Check.
Confidence level? Check, mate.
Barty is now the all-court threat in the women’s game. Naomi Osaka had cornered the recent market on hard courts, winning two Australian Opens and two US Opens but historically has not been a viable threat at Roland Garros and Wimbledon.
In the wake of her 2019 victory at Roland Garros, Barty gained the No.1 ranking for the first time. When the global pandemic began to erode the schedule, the WTA froze the rankings the following March, allowing points to extend beyond the traditional 52-week window. Barty played her final match of 2020 in late February, electing to stay home in Australia for the balance of the season. This prompted some to question the validity of that No.1 ranking.
In 2021, Barty scalded the skeptics with a stellar season. She went on a six-month road trip, won the title at Wimbledon and posted a 46-8 record, good – very good – for a winning percentage of 85.2, far ahead of the field. Anett Kontaveit (51-17, 75 pct.) and Paula Badosa (46-17, 73 pct.) were the best of the rest.
Well, Barty has started 2022 with 11 straight victories and, with the Adelaide International, three titles, including doubles.
4 - Ashleigh #Barty is only the fourth Women player in the Open Era to have 100% winning percentage in Grand Slam finals (minimum three titles), after Virginia Wade, Jennifer Capriati and Naomi Osaka. Superb.#AusOpen2022 #AO2022 #AustralianOpen2022 pic.twitter.com/mwn3QvR3qb— OptaAce (@OptaAce) January 29, 2022
Two weeks in Melbourne demonstrated that her longer-than-usual offseason was put to efficient use; her already deep, diverse game is even more polished. Craig Tyzzer, who has coached Barty since she returned from a lengthy sabbatical in 2016, is a tactical wizard. But more importantly, his matter-of-fact, even-keel approach helps keep Barty grounded and, increasingly, comfortable in her skin. Not all major champions manage to pull that off.
In an age of flux, that first hard-court major gives Barty a legitimate shot at a season Grand Slam – heading to Roland Garros and Wimbledon where she’s already won.
Barty will be among the favorites to win the title in Paris, along with recent past champions Barbora Krejcikova and Iga Swiatek.
Since Serena Williams won her 23rd Grand Slam singles title at the 2017 Australian Open, there have been 19 majors contested. Thirteen different players have won those championships – 10 of them one-time winners, including Caroline Wozniacki, Sofia Kenin, Sloane Stephens, Bianca Andreescu, Jelena Ostapenko and Emma Raducanu. Osaka has those four major titles and now Barty has three.
Heading into Melbourne, there was a mathematical possibility Aryna Sabalenka or Krejcikova could wrest away the No.1 ranking. But it will be 113 consecutive weeks for Barty as the top-ranked player come Monday – only one month behind Justine Henin, No. 7 on the all-time list.
In her typical fashion, Barty downplayed and deflected her achievement
“Yeah, there’s still work to be done, without a doubt," she said. "To be honest, I don’t really feel like I belong with those champions of our sport. I’m still very much learning and trying to refine my craft and try and learn every single day and get better and better.”