Australia’s Open

Express News Service

CHENNAI: Even before one ball was hit in anger at Melbourne Park in 2022, the Australian Open descended into farce thanks to the issue surrounding Novak Djokovic. The polarising issue divided even locals. Some even accused the organisers of slightly relaxing the rules in order to allow Djokovic to compete.

Over the course of two weeks, though, a bunch of Australians have truly captivated the imagination. In the first week of the Major, Dylan Alcott was named ‘Australian of the Year’. A true legend in the world of quad singles, the 31-year-old retired this year. A finalist this year, his medals count includes 15 titles at the Slams as well as two Paralympic gold (2016 and 2021). His award wasn’t just what he achieved on a tennis court, it was for also changing the perceptions regarding differently-abled people in society. A disability rights advocate, Alcott, in his acceptance speech, said: “I love my disability, it’s the best thing to happen to me… I love the person I am”. He has also become a synonym for inspiration. During the tournament, Andy Murray texted Alcott to let him know as much. “You are an absolute rockstar and an inspiration, thanks for everything that you have done…”

In the doubles arena, two unseeded pairs, including the wildcard, scratch duo of Thanasi Kokkinakis and Nick Kyrgios, sailed into the final.

The person who really has had to meet the expectation of millions of Australians, though, was Ash Barty. If some of the Australians on show at this tournament have been the living embodiment of ‘Aussie Aussie Aussie, Oi Oi Oi’, Barty is that rare breed: an Australian athlete the world cheers for with no reservations.  

Coming into the tournament, she was World No 1 but that meant little because of the expectation on her shoulders. It was simple enough: could she end more than four decades of the Australian Open without a single Australian singles winner (1978 to be exact). Put it this way. It was renamed Rod Laver Arena in January 2000. Since then, Rod Laver’s house has housed crowned champions from 13 nationalities but none from Australia (only one, Lleyton Hewitt had reached a final). That was the sort of history that Barty was battling to rewrite.

Even if history was against her, form was her friend coming into Melbourne. She had completed a double at Adelaide (singles and doubles) only the week before. That form kind of told as she breezed past the first week at Melbourne like knife through hot butter. It comprised of six straight-forward sets, including one bagel and three breadsticks. What worked so well was her serve and her razor-sharp from forehand passing shots from just beyond the baseline.

She is adept at going crosscourt or sending it down the wing. Needless to say, it’s her bellwether shot. Take her service for example. Coming into the final, she had lost service only once in six matches. She also has that Federeresque ability to turn it up a notch when facing break points. Accumulating free points on service games is the best way to release pressure and the 25-year-old was the master of that. Facing a Barty service game, hence, is difficult. It’s fast and loaded with spin and pace. Even when the opponent manages to return, her stinging deep forehand returns puts them in trouble. If an opponent manages to see beyond her bellwether shot, that’s when it becomes a tad interesting. That’s also when Barty, the only active women’s player apart from Serena Williams to win Majors on all three surfaces, does some of her best work. For she is an elite problem-solver, who likes nothing more than tying up her competitors in a bind.

One only had to listen to Jessica Pegula, the quarterfinalist who managed to win only two games against Barty. “I think she just does everything really well,” Pegula summed up. “She just does everything I think a little bit better than everybody. You feel pretty helpless. I think we have seen her do that to a lot of people. Unfortunately I was a victim tonight to that. Her game just kind of picks you apart a little bit, and it can be frustrating.”

Danielle Collins was in Pegula’s shoes on Saturday. After a lacklustre first set, Collins, in her first Major final, showed how she had put this run. She raced into a 5-1 lead before serving to level the final. What followed next was a tennis clinic from the dream factory. Aces, forehand winners and solid defensive deep backhand returns all combined to leave Collins’ nerves jangling. She found some normalcy in her serve to take it into a tiebreak but the red carpet had already been laid out. And less than five minutes later, Barty once again struck a forehand winner to reach a place where no Australian had traversed for the last 44 years.

After winning Wimbledon last year, Barty had said: “Australian have such a rich history in (this) sport. And I think being able to be a small part of that is something I always dreamt of.” Forget small, she is well on her to becoming a colossus in this sport.

For a tournament that began in infamy, it’s given Australia it’s greatest triumph the sport has seen since the 1970s. 

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