MELBOURNE (Reuters) – Ash Barty will carry the weight of a nation on her shoulders when she faces big-hitting American Danielle Collins in Saturday’s Australian Open final, as she seeks to end her country’s 44-year wait for a home champion.
The world number one has lost just 21 games to reach her maiden final at Melbourne Park and is primed to become the first local since Chris O’Neil in 1978 to win the Australian Open.
Barty, who won the 2019 French Open and is the reigning Wimbledon champion, is also unbeaten in 10 matches this season and warmed up for the first Grand Slam of the year with a WTA 500 title in a tune-up tournament in Adelaide.
Standing in the Australian’s way is Collins, a first-time Grand Slam finalist. The American is a big underdog but Barty is not underestimating her.
“She’s an exceptional ball striker,” Barty said of her 28-year-old opponent, whom she has beaten in three of their four previous matchups, though Collins won the most recent in Adelaide last year.
“She’s someone who stands on the baseline and can hit all spots of the court from any position. I think the challenge is going to be trying to get her off-balance.
“I think the way she’s able to control the baseline and really take the game on she’s one of the most fierce competitors out here. She loves to get in your face and loves to really take it on.”
Collins, ranked 30th in the world, will break into the top 10 when the rankings are updated on Monday.
She is hopeful she can finally realise her full potential after undergoing surgery last April to have a cyst the size of a tennis ball removed.
Twice an NCAA champion, Collins has continued the strong run for American women at Melbourne Park, becoming the third straight U.S. finalist after Jennifer Brady last year and Sofia Kenin in 2020.
Collins is aware she will have to contend with raucous support for Barty from the Rod Laver Arena stands but the American said she enjoys playing in front of people — even if the crowd is against her.
“Something I really admire about Ash’s game is her variety, playing a different game style than pretty much all of the players on tour,” said the American.
“There is not too many that use the slice backhand the way that she does, and have the big serve the way that she does. I think when I go out against her we’re going to have another battle hopefully and put on a good show for everyone.”
Given the interest in the final, the Victorian government accepted a Tennis Australia request on Friday and increased the crowd capacity by 15% to 80% with some extra tickets going on sale for the finals weekend.
Barty, 25, has proved she can neutralise the power-hitters, eliminating the likes of Camila Giorgi, Amanda Anisimova and Madison Keys over the past two weeks.
The big unknown is how she handles the pressure of her first Australian Open final.
Mats Wilander, a seven-times major champion, has no concerns about that.
“If you asked me two weeks ago I would’ve said she felt a lot of pressure. Not today, not in the finals,” said Eurosport’s tennis expert Wilander.
“She is beyond all that. Her serve is better than everybody else, her forehand is better than everybody else and she moves better than everybody else.”
(Reporting by Sudipto Ganguly; Editing by Editing by Peter Rutherford)