Australian Open, women’s final preview: Contrast in styles as Ashleigh Barty faces Danielle Collins

Ashleigh Barty carries Australia's hopes in looking to become the first local women's champion in 44 years. In her path stands a resurgent Danielle Collins.

Tanuj Lakhina January 29, 2022 08:37:03 IST
Australian Open, women’s final preview: Contrast in styles as Ashleigh Barty faces Danielle Collins

Ashleigh Barty is hoping to win her third Grand Slam title while Danielle Collins is chasing her first. AP

Melbourne: Australian Open crowd haven’t had much to see of home favourite and World No 1 Ashleigh Barty this past fortnight. She’s spent all of six hours and six minutes on court in her six matches. In the process she has not lost a set and dropped all of 21 games while being broken just once. The closest anyone has come to bothering her was Amanda Anisimova taking four games off her in the fourth round. Not that the Aussies mind this run of ruthlessness.

With the mauling of Madison Keys in the semi-finals, Barty became the first Australian woman into the decider of her home Grand Slam since Wendy Turnbull in 1980. Should she go on to win, the Queenslander would become the first local winner since Chris O'Neil in 1978.

To put Barty’s rampant run of form into statistical perspective, only Serena Williams (16 at the 2016 US Open) and Venus Williams (20 at 2009 Wimbledon) have dropped fewer games than Barty en route to a major final since 2000.

"It's brilliant to be playing in the business end of your home Slam. I'm not gonna lie about that. It's amazing," reigning Wimbledon champion Barty said.

"I think being able to experience it multiple times has been incredible, but Saturday's going to be a new experience for me. So, I go out there and embrace it, smile, try and do the best that I can and whatever happens, happens,” she added.

Looking to deny her a third Grand Slam title would be a resurgent Danielle Collins. The American is enjoying a second coming after emergency surgery last year for endometriosis. Nine months on, the 28-year-old has 32-7 win-loss record, capturing her maiden WTA singles titles last year in Palermo then San Jose.

The American’s best result at a Slam came in Melbourne in 2019 when she reached the semi-finals. A run to the final would take her into the top-10 for the first time to cap a remarkable comeback.

"To play against the number one player in the world in her home country, it's going to be spectacular," said Collins of the final.

"I couldn't be happier. It's been such a journey, so many years of hard work."

Barty's backhand slice vs Collins' tenacity

The difference in game couldn’t be starker between the finalists. Keys offered her fellow American some scouting report ahead of the title showdown, “You have a game plan in your head, but she’s just executing everything so well. She’s serving incredibly well, so you don’t get any free points on that.”

Barty has won 81 of her last 82 service games.

“Her slice is coming in so much lower and deeper than it was in the past, so it’s hard to do anything on that. Then you try to play to her forehand and she can open you up there. I think the rest of us are watching it thinking, ‘wow, this is incredible,’ but when you watch her, she seems completely in control of all of it.”

Mary Joe Fernandes in commentary on ESPN in the US called Barty’s slice backhand “Steffi Graf-like” and there is very good reason to. A graphic accompanying their coverage highlighted how the Australian’s backhand slice would stay as low as 25 inches, a good 18 inches lower than Keys’ average contact point in a rally.

Another pundit, Jim Courier, put Barty’s slice backhand in the same league as that of Roger Federer. While the Aussie took the praise with humility typical to her, she went on to say, "I love to use my slice, I love to get creative with it, to use it offensively and defensively. Over my career I've learnt it is a weapon for me. I try and use it when I have to. But being able to use it with variety and have different options has been a massive part of my game through this last couple of years of my career."

Collins acknowledged Barty’s variety of shot making. “Something I really admire about Ash’s game is her variety, and playing the different game styles than pretty much all of the players on tour. There are not too many that use the slice backhand the way that she does, and, you know, have the big serve the way that she does,” Collins said.

And that slice backhand could well be the difference in the final. Not only to play defensive tennis but to deny Collins room to execute her shots – the way Barty denied Keys.

A tenacious Collins has been drawn to a third set twice in this fortnight and played lights out tennis in the semi-final against Iga Swiatek. The Polish player described it “fastest balls I ever played against,” to be beaten 4-6, 1-6. In the two matches she was pushed, needing to come from a set down to beat Clara Tauson and Elise Mertens, Collins met her match in opponents who could either out-hit her or were able to play a variety of shots – unlike Swiatek.

Collins, who has beaten Barty once in four meetings, a year ago at the Australian Open tune up tournament in Adelaide, is hoping to achieve her childhood dream of becoming a Grand Slam champion.

In the matches against Alize Cornet and Swiatek, Collins attacked and looked to close the point out early. Against the Frenchwoman in the quarter-finals, Collins won 43 of 76 points which had 0-4 shots and 51 of 76 against Swiatek. She got less effective as the point grew longer than 9 shots: winning 4 in 10 against Cornet and 2 in 8 against Swiatek.

“She’s an exceptional ball striker,” Barty said of Collins. “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.”

Keys offered another bit of advice to Collins in order to keep Australia’s wait for a first home female champion ticking past 44 years. “I think the tough thing is that I think (Barty) kind of makes you over-think a little bit, and you start pressing a little bit, you feel like you have to do too much at times,” Keys said. “She puts that kind of pressure on you.”

For Barty, the weight of expectations could play a role too. At the 2019 French Open, Barty became the first Aussie woman to triumph in Paris in 46 years. At 2021 Wimbledon, Barty became the first Australian women’s champion in 41 years. The hopes of the nation carry into the Australian Open final now.

"I can't do any more than I can try. That's all I can do. If it doesn't happen, it doesn't happen," she said. “I just have to hope that everyone understands that I'm giving it my best crack.”

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