AO 2022: Collins stands between Barty and history

Australia awaits its first home singles champion in 44 years.

Ashleigh Barty / Open d'Australie 2022©Corinne Dubreuil/FFT
 - Reem Abulleil

The first time Ashleigh Barty set foot at Melbourne Park, she was 11 or 12 years old attending a training camp during the second week of the Australian Open.

She would return a couple of years later as a 14-year-old to contest the junior tournament for the first time.

“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,” reflected Barty after booking herself a spot in the Australian Open final on Thursday.

“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.”

Barty’s last four trips to Melbourne saw her reach the quarters in 2019, the semis in 2020, the quarters again in 2021, and now a maiden final appearance at her home Slam.

Home hopes

Already a two-time major champion, thanks to her triumphant runs at Roland-Garros in 2019 and Wimbledon last summer, Barty is looking to become the first home champion at the Australian Open since 1978.

The 25-year-old Queenslander is the first Australian woman to make it to the final of the tournament since 1980.

The world No.1 enters Saturday’s title decider against American No.27 Danielle Collins carrying a 10-match winning streak that started with a title run in Adelaide earlier this month.

Barty has been in devastating form this fortnight, losing a mere 21 games through six matches en route to the final, and spending just six hours and six minutes on court in total.

She has won 46 of her 47 service games this Australian Open, surrendering that sole break of serve in the fourth round against Amanda Anisimova, who is the only player to claim a maximum four games against Barty in a set so far in Melbourne.

“I just feel really clear on my service games. I have a lot of trust in my game, have a lot of trust in my serve,” said Barty on Thursday.

“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. If I don't I can back my legs in and run and kind of build pressure without that facet of my game.

“All in all I think it's been a really good serving start to the year, I suppose, but we did do a lot of work on it.”

Ashleigh Barty, Australian Open 2022, semi-finals© Corinne Dubreuil/FFT

Barty takes a narrow 2-1 head-to-head record lead over Collins stepping into their showdown on Saturday.

The 28-year-old American will be contesting her maiden Grand Slam final, with her previous best result at a major coming in Melbourne three years ago when she made it to the semis on her tournament debut.

“She's an exceptional ball-striker. 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,” said Barty of her final opponent.

An unconventional path

Collins is a strong character on the court and off it. Just nine months ago, she underwent surgery for endometriosis, a condition she waited a long time to be properly diagnosed with.

A cyst the size of a tennis ball was removed from her ovary and she was back competing at a Slam the following month.

Unlike Barty, who was a tennis prodigy that won Wimbledon juniors at 15 and was ranked No.2 in the world junior rankings, Collins had an unorthodox route to the top of the game.

Danielle Collins / Australian Open 2022 ©Corinne Dubreuil/FFT

She started out on the public courts of Florida and instead of turning pro in her teens like most players do, she went to college and won two NCAA titles while attending University of Virginia.

“In a lot of ways, I was self-taught. My family didn’t have the money to send me to a tennis academy or even private lessons at a club, so I spent my time on the public courts playing against older people. I had to be resourceful and that just made me tougher athlete and competitor. Looking back on it all, I wouldn’t change a thing,” Collins said in a conversation with WTA Insider in 2019.

“I was never a child prodigy, I wasn't tapped to be the next big thing when I was coming up and that kept me humble. I worked harder because nothing was given to me, and there's no time to feel sorry for yourself.”

That toughness comes through loud and clear when you watch Collins on a tennis court. She is confrontational, hits a big ball, takes initiative, and never backs down.

'I'm at a loss for words'

Her path to the Australian Open final included tight three-set wins over Clara Tauson and No.19 seed Elise Mertens before she claimed straight-sets victories against Alize Cornet in the quarter-finals and No.7 seed Iga Swiatek in the semis.

“It's been an incredible journey this tournament. Having a lot of fun on court, a lot of tough opponents, battles out there. To be through to the final is really incredible. I think I'm at a loss for words right now,” Collins told reporters on Thursday.

The Floridian is aware she’ll be facing a packed Rod Laver Arena that will be rooting for their home favourite to lift the title, but she assures that is an atmosphere she can absolutely thrive in.

Collins, who says she was a “theatrical person” in college and drew inspiration from Lady Gaga, is not one to be intimidated by the big stage and could very well give Barty her toughest test of the fortnight.

Top-10 debut

Given her unique route to professional tennis, Collins was asked when she began to believe she could one day make it to a major final.

“I think one of the special things on the women's side of the game is the depth across the board. There has been so many people, so many women in the last couple years who won Slams that were not expected to win Slams, and I think that gives hope to all of the players,” she explained. “Whether you're outside the top 50, whether you're outside the top 100 or you're in the top 10, I think everybody has a chance of making deep runs. I have used that mentality and just tried to do the best that I can.”

She will now make her top-10 debut when the new rankings are released after the tournament, and has a shot at becoming a Grand Slam champion.

Key stats

Barty has won 11 of her past 13 finals, with nine of those victories coming in straight sets.

Collins leads the tournament with 32 return winners. The American has struck a total of 164 winners through six matches and has broken serve 27 times.