Anyone who has spent any time in Melbourne over the past week cannot have failed to notice Ash Barty. The 23-year-old’s face adorns posters at the airport and across the city. The hopes of a nation, starved of a singles champion at their home grand slam for more than 40 years, are stamped across billboards and even in jewellery shops where the limited edition watch she wears is being sold.
In a country that loves its sporting heroes like no other, Barty is as popular as any of them, if not more so. Down to earth, humble and gutsy, she epitomises all Australians recognise in a true sporting icon. But what has the country and the city even more excited is that in two weeks’ time, if things go her way, the world No 1 could make another piece of personal history by lifting the women’s title at the Australian Open.
On Saturday, she completed the perfect preparation week when she won the Adelaide International, beating Dayana Yastremska of Ukraine 6-2, 7-5 to claim her eighth career title but first on home soil. It was a hard-earned and well-deserved crown, with a couple of tight battles before a final in which she was too solid and too consistent for the talented Yastremska.
“It was a tussle, I was just about able to get over the line,” Barty said. “I love playing here and I love playing at home. It was nice to get the ball rolling this week and I can’t wait to get started in Melbourne.”
It is now 42 years since Chris O’Neil won the title in Melbourne, a drought few who were there would surely have believed possible at a tournament dominated, to that point, by home players. The likes of Lleyton Hewitt, Pat Rafter and Mark Philippoussis threatened to emulate her but fell just short, while their best female player of the last 25 years, Sam Stosur, invariably buckled under the pressure of performing in front of her home crowd and Jelena Dokic made it only as far as the last eight.
It was Billie Jean King who said famously that “pressure is a privilege”, but for Australians at the Australian Open, just like the French at Roland Garros for the past 37 years, dealing with expectations has been an extra burden they could well do without. Barty is not immune to the pressure, but the way she has dealt with being No 1 suggests she may be the one to buck the trend.
And yet former world No 1 John McEnroe believes she, too, might yet find things tough. “She’s got a lot of variety in her game that can work for her but there’s going to be people coming after her,” he told Melbourne newspaper The Age. “So it’s not going to be easier. Sometimes, for someone like Ash Barty, it may be more difficult to win Australia than it would be to win Wimbledon.”
Crucially, Barty has already won a grand slam, having waltzed her way to the title at Roland Garros last summer. In Paris, where few expected her game style to work on clay, she upset the odds. Here, she is the second favourite behind Serena Williams and she will be hoping to use the energy of the home crowd to her benefit, rather than let it rest on her shoulders as a burden.
Perhaps it will help that she went the distance in Adelaide, gaining confidence by winning matches and another title, rather than being on site in Melbourne having to talk, non-stop, about her chances of Australian Open glory.
Dokic, now working as a commentator for Channel Nine, believes Barty can cope. “It’s never easy but she is someone who can handle it, we saw that last year, being No 1 and winning a grand slam, then winning the Tour Finals. So if there is anyone can handle it all, it is her,” Dokic said. “I think there will be players who (put) a target on her back. It’s so great for Australian tennis, there are so many girls who want to be like her. It’s also about everything, how she competes, she’s gracious out there and she’s a hero.”
The pressure may be a factor, but McEnroe has no doubt that she has the ability to win. “I knew she had the all-court game,” he said. “But I think the turning point in her career came at the French Open when she was down a set and 3-0 against Amanda Anisimova, and she pulled it out. Mentally I think she turned the corner, and I think she believes now that she can win anything. You’d have to put her right up there.”
Win the title here in a fortnight’s time and there will be putting a statue of her at Melbourne Park.