Amid a turning of the tides at the top of women’s tennis, a local hero looks to become the shining beacon of the sport.
After five years of the most even competition at the top end of women’s tennis ever, Australia’s Ash Barty is looking to cement her name at the top of the rankings.
A win at the Australian Open — the first for an Australian since Chris O’Neil won in 1978 — would see Barty locked in the number one spot for the foreseeable future.
The past half-decade has been historically even at the top. For the first time since World War II, no woman has won more than one grand slam title in a year. Nine women have held the number-one ranking in this time, one more than the entire decade prior.
In these years, only Naomi Osaka has won more than two grand slam titles. Barty, who has been forced to miss tournaments due to injuries and travel issues, is seeking to chase down the Japanese star and build her case as the game’s most dominant star after Serena Williams.
Blocking her path is Danielle Collins, a 28-year-old American who has endured a long and twisting route to the upper echelons of the women’s game. Collins, a former semifinalist at the Australian Open, has forged a path unique in the modern game.
Surging into the top 10 due to her performance in Melbourne, Collins will be seeking her maiden grand slam title, and to add to the chaotic mix at the top.
The 2022 Australian Open final shapes as a classic battle between the local champion and the unexpected challenger, with the world watching at the ready.
Barty the orchestrator
As William Shakespeare once wrote, some are born great, some achieve greatness and some have greatness thrust upon ’em.
The path to greatness for Ash Barty, a Ngaragu woman from Ipswich in south-east Queensland, has been a combination of all three.
Coming through the junior ranks as a star in the making, Barty chalked up a junior Wimbledon title and made a senior Australian Open doubles final (alongside Casey Dellacqua) by the age of 16. Her future was bright, but the pressure was intense.
In 2014 Barty stepped away from the game, seeking different experiences. As Barty told Kurt Fearnley on the ABC’s One Plus One: “In short, I think I needed just to find myself.”
“I felt like I got twisted and maybe a little bit lost along the way in the first part of my career,” she said.
After a stint playing cricket for the Brisbane Heat, Barty returned to tennis with a new perspective on the game. She had a challenging 2016 season at the lower levels of professional tennis, but the following years saw Barty charge up the rankings.
What has driven this rise is the absolute completeness of her game.
While some players have definite strengths and weaknesses, Barty’s strongest quality is how well-rounded she is as a player. The Queenslander combines one of the most explosive power games with a finesse that few others can match.
Barty seemingly finds joy in working opponents out, beating them on her terms and not theirs. Against players with a power-focused game, Barty tries to deny them time and space to work. Against the lighter hitters on tour, Barty will blast them off court.
Despite not being the biggest player on tour, Barty is one of the most powerful.
She also has a different set of weapons to other players. Barty leans on the backhand slice more than any other player currently on tour, a throwback to eras past. Her use of the shot redirects the flow of the game, giving her opponents less power to work off.
She’s at ease winning both shorter and longer rallies, one of the few players that can dominate both.
Barty is also very good at not making mistakes. She tends to hit fewer winners than many of her rivals for the top spot, but she also makes fewer unforced errors. In the semifinal against Madison Keys, Barty struck one fewer error than the American in the match, despite winning in straight sets. However, she ended up with 13 fewer unforced errors, the difference in the match.
When Barty does get into trouble on serve, she is the best in the game at stopping opponents from taking advantage.
So far in 2022, Barty has been perfect on the court, winning every match she has played to date. She’s only lost one set, in her first match of the year against rising American Coco Gauff. At the Australian Open she has been broken just once and has controlled each and every match to date.
One more win would give her the elusive Australian Open title she has been dreaming of.
The rise of Collins
Tennis players tend to follow a set pathway. Strong results, if not domination, at the junior levels, before a quick transition to the main tour. Prodigies are identified early, with tennis academies drawing in young hopefuls and shooting out prospective pros.
Ash Barty’s break from the tour is the stuff of local legend, but Collins’s journey has flown more under the radar. While Barty was world number two as a junior, with a Wimbledon title to boot, Collins took the hard way to the top.
At 25 years old, Barty was the number-one-ranked player in the world., Collins hadn’t won a single grand slam match.
The Floridian topped out at 430 in the world in juniors, winning a few key matches but without a huge amount of high-level success. Instead of battling it out on the feeder tours, she opted to go to college and play tennis for the University of Florida. College tennis is an uncommon pathway to success, especially in the Open era. Collins’s appearance at the Australian Open semis in 2019 was the first for a former college player at grand slam level in the Open era.
Collins struggled for playing time initially at this lower level, and transferred to the University of Virginia for more playing time. It was at Virginia that she thrived, winning two national college titles by the end of her amateur career. But the turning point for her career was arguably a win in 2018 over former world number one Venus Williams. Since then, Collins has scored six more wins against top 10 players, all on hard courts.
Collins has also struggled physically over the years. At 26 years old, she was diagnosed with rheumatoid arthritis, crippling her for days at a time. Over time, Collins has learnt her triggers and been able to monitor the problem. But that was just the start of her health issues.
Last year, Collins had surgery to remove a tennis-ball-sized cyst on her ovaries, a product of endometriosis. The condition, which affects around 10 per cent of women, creates extreme amounts of pain. Endometriosis is hard to diagnose, often taking years to effectively pinpoint. It is also often hard to treat.
The operation forced Collins to miss several months of tennis. Since her return, Collins has been in career-best form, reeling off two title wins in 2021. Collins rose to a career-high ranking near the end of the year, and she will leave the Australian Open with a ranking inside the top 10.
Collins has done so while playing an aesthetically pleasing brand of tennis, one which takes the game on.
Collins’s style of play is toned with aggression, a willingness to make sure the ball is hit. It’s largely risk-reward, going for the lines to win points rather than worrying about the consequences if the ball sails out.
When it comes off, it is stunning to watch, breathtaking tennis at its best. Where Barty tries to control games, Collins forces them away from her opponents. In a generation of power hitters on the women’s side, Collins is right up there with the best.
Collins is willing to take the lines on and hit inside-outside balls across the court. Few players hit more winners than the St Pete native, somewhat at odds with Barty’s style.
She has also been willing, and able, to take her chances on breakpoints, pouncing on opportunities to put her opposition’s serve under pressure.
To beat Barty, in the biggest match of her career to date, her game will have to be at its peak.
Barty and Collins have met four times before, with Barty winning three of those encounters. However, Collins took their last match-up in 2021 at the Adelaide International.
Collins forced the game away from the Australian, with Barty struggling to find rhythm on first serve. The first serve is critical for Barty to find tempo in her game; her few losses in the past 12 months have often been accompanied by low first-serve percentages.
This has also been an occasional weakness for Collins, with her first-serve percentage of 54.5 per cent the fourth lowest of the top 50 in the last year.
Against Keys, another big-hitting American, Barty signalled that her strategy would be to shift the ball around the edges of the court and to take the game away from Keys’ racquet. The tactic worked a treat, albeit with early nerves from her opponent helping along the way. Barty will likely try to play similarly against Collins.
Barty’s run is almost as dominant as any in recent years. However, she has also yet to face an opponent inside the top 20 in the world.
By contrast, Collins has been broken in every one of her matches. In both the third and fourth rounds, Collins went down a set before fighting back and claiming victory. Collins has spent about four and a half more hours on court in her journey to the final. But much like her career to date, Collins’s last two matches have been increasingly dominant.
For both, the journey to the final matters, but the final match is the one that really counts.