Australia's Barty remains cool under pressure

 - Simon Cambers

Roland-Garros champion trying to become first home winner in 42 years.

The hopes of a nation rest on the shoulders of Ash Barty, the 23-year-old Australian who is trying to become the first home singles winner at Melbourne Park in 42 years.

It’s a pressure that would make most players buckle but Barty, so laid-back and relaxed it often looks like she’s just arrived to have a hit with a friend, seems to be taking it all in her stride.

On Wednesday, despite a vicious wind that whipped the ball to places it should never see, Barty eased to a 6-1, 6-4 victory over Polona Hercog of Slovenia, taking her into the third round and a meeting with Elena Rybakina of Kazakhstan, the No 29 seed.

Barty is a national hero, her face adorning numerous sponsors around the city, from Vegemite to sun cream, the watch she wears or the car she endorses.

It’s a fame that sits slightly uncomfortably on her shoulders but things have changed since she won the Roland-Garros title last summer for her first Grand Slam crown. Now, she’s an Australian icon.

Everyone has to put up with me,” she said, with a smile. “It's pretty average, I think. No, it's been incredible. The love and the support I've received from people all over Australia, in particular kids, it brings a smile to my face every single day when kids come up and just want to have a chat. It's amazing.

Like so many Australians, Barty has taken the savage bushfires, which have ripped through Australia and caused so much devastation to people and wildlife, to heart. But she has also been inspired by the response of everyone within the tennis community, with millions already raised for bushfire relief.

It's been incredible, it really has,” Barty said. “It's been very generous from people all over the globe donating to try and help, because every single little bit counts. Whether it's big or small, it all makes a massive difference.

Barty is donating money for every ace she serves through the tournament while other players have gone even further, with Germany’s Sascha Zverev pledging $10,000 per match win and all of the AUD $4.12 million winners’ cheque should he lift the title.

It's been amazing to be a very small part of all the donations,” Barty said. “And the fact that the tennis community is coming together, because I think, you know, the work that everyone is doing from the firefighters, volunteers, everyone, it's been remarkable. That's the best way to put it. It's been amazing. It's really nice for the community but the whole nation to come together, as well.

Ash Barty Australian Open 2020C.Dubreuil/FFT

Playing for something greater than herself could yet be the inspiration Barty needs to win her home Grand Slam. Chris O’Neil, who won the women’s title in 1978, is the last Australian, woman or man, to triumph in Melbourne, but Barty is just trying to take everything in her stride.

I think you feel more comfortable every day,” she said. “Every time you're able to win a match, you have another opportunity to try and be that little bit better, to try to be that little bit more sharp and clean."

And Barty said she may have a secret weapon in her efforts to keep her mind off what could happen because she’s playing doubles with Julia Goerges of Germany.

"I'm not really going to focus on it or stress about, (my next opponent),” she said. “I'm looking forward to playing doubles first, I think, in between. I think we will play tomorrow. That will be exciting.

Barty reached the quarter-finals here last year, losing a tight battle with the Czech, Petra Kvitova, and has now reached at least the third round in eight of her past nine Grand Slam events.

It's just more opportunities. It's more experience, more learnings, more everything from every time that I'm kind of thrown into a new situation,” she said.

It’s that kind of attitude that bodes well for the tougher tasks that will come in week two. So far, so good.