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Ashleigh Barty digs deep to become first Aussie to win Australian Open in 44 years

Ashleigh Barty defeated Danielle Collins on Saturday to win the Australian Open. (Hamish Blair/AP)
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Through six rounds of tennis at the Australian Open, world No. 1 Ashleigh Barty had hardly been pushed, competing at such a rarefied level that she hadn’t conceded a set and lost her serve only once in 47 attempts.

Then came American Danielle Collins, who marched onto the court at Rod Laver Arena for Saturday’s final brandishing one of game’s best returns and inner belief as powerful as her backhand. For a stretch in the second set, Collins threatened to spoil the celebration-in-waiting of a nation fully expecting Barty, one of its own, to waltz to her first Australian Open title.

But champions adjust. And that’s what Barty did, taking the risks required to shut down Collins’s comeback attempt to win her home country’s Grand Slam — and her third major overall — with a 6-3, 7-6 (7-2) victory.

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With it, a joyous party erupted in the stands and across the tennis-loving country, which had gone 44 years without having an Australian Open singles champion of its own to cheer.

And in a surprise that nearly brought Barty to tears, her hero, Australian tennis great Evonne Goolagong Cawley, with whom Barty shares an Indigenous heritage, appeared to present the trophy.

Barty’s Australian Open title attests to her versatility, completing her collection of majors on the sport’s three surfaces. She triumphed on the French Open’s clay in 2019, Wimbledon’s grass last year and now Australia’s hard court.

It also revealed her deep-seated humility. Barty, 25, described herself as “lucky” and “fortunate” in fielding nearly every post-match question and characterized herself as “a very, very small part” of Australia’s rich tennis history.

Rod Laver, 83, heaped his praise atop the embrace that Goolagong Cawley extended, hailing Barty as “the complete player” in winning a major on three different surfaces. “There’s nothing like winning at home,” tweeted Laver, who won the Australian Open three times, including the two that were part of his 1962 and 1969 calendar-year Grand Slams.

Collins, 28, made the final step of Barty’s achievement difficult. Though the tournament’s 27th seed, she refused to be cowed by Barty’s world No. 1 status or the fact that she had few supporters in the unapologetically pro-Barty crowd.

A two-time NCAA singles champion while at Virginia, Collins took the fight to Barty, attacking short balls, charging the net in uncharacteristic fashion and roaring “Come on!” in defiance each time she struck a winner or coaxed an error.

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She became just the second woman to break Barty’s serve in the tournament and did so twice in the second set to bolt to a 5-1 lead, with two chances to serve to force a third set.

Barty dug in and reeled off four consecutive games, focusing less on whether she won each point and more on resetting the competitive tone.

“Once it was 1-5 down, I just wanted to try and shift and be a little more aggressive, adjust a couple of things tactically just to get momentum if we went to a third [set],” Barty said.

Serving at 5-6, Barty held to force what proved the decisive tiebreaker and let out a roar for the ages upon winning it, 87 minutes after the first ball was struck. She finished with 10 aces and 14 forehand winners, while Collins managed one of each.

Nonetheless, Collins’s success in reaching her first Grand Slam final and pushing Barty further than any challenger had validated a pro career that few expected would amount to anything. She spoke afterward about the challenge of staying the course largely alone since turning pro after graduating from Virginia in 2016, developing her game in lower-tier tournaments offering break-even prize money.

Collins competed at this year’s Australian Open without a coach or any corporate endorsement deals of note, spurred on by a longtime mentor, her boyfriend and a close group of friends.

On Monday, she’ll vault from 30th in the world to the top 10, making her the top-ranked American, man or woman. She’ll also pocket roughly $1.1 million in prize money as the tournament’s runner-up, which represents nearly one-third of her six-year career earnings.

With it, Collins said, she hopes to hire a full-time athletic trainer to help alleviate the tightness and discomfort that often flares up in her lower back, as well as a coach and perhaps a hitting partner — a semblance of the support staff that virtually all top pros employ.

“Today my body wasn’t always agreeing with me … I was in a little bit of a fight with my body,” she said, alluding to her lower-back struggles but adding that it didn’t dictate the outcome.

Barty opened her news conference with the trophy placed to her left and a glass of champagne in her right hand.

She thanked her parents and sisters, who looked on from her box. She thanked Australian fans, her support team and her coach, Craig Tyzzer, whom she has credited with restoring her passion for tennis in what she calls “the second phase” of her career, after walking away for nearly two years when the travel and expectation sapped her joy.

Ashleigh Barty walked away from tennis to find her way forward.

Tyzzer, who spoke with reporters after the victory, marveled at how Barty shouldered the weight of a nation throughout the tournament without buckling.

“You can’t walk around the corner and [not] hear that, you know, ‘It’s 44 years’ or how long it’s been since someone [from Australia] has won it.”

Barty downplayed that burden, insisting the only pressure she felt was that she would give her best. “That’s all I've ever done,” she noted.

Anything beyond that, Barty said, was a narrative foisted on her by the media. Regardless, her ability to shut out fellow Australians’ hopes — particularly amid the pandemic’s surge and on the heels of 11 days of pretournament controversy over Novak Djokovic’s eligibility to compete — was a triumph of compartmentalization.

The women’s final was contested before an audience capped at 80 percent capacity as a precaution against the pandemic. Chris O’Neil, the last Australian to win the tournament, was among the country’s luminaries on hand, which included Laver, Olympic gold medalists Cathy Freeman and Ian Thorpe, and actor Russell Crowe in the front row.

At the main entrance to Rod Laver Arena, a human-rights group handed out more than 1,000 free T-shirts that read “Where Is Peng Shuai?” to keep alive concerns about the well-being of the Chinese tennis player.

Not long after Barty’s cross-court winner clinched the women’s championship, Australians Nick Kyrgios and Thanasi Kokkinakis gave the nation another reason to cheer by winning the all-Aussie men’s doubles title, 7-5, 6-4, over Matthew Ebden and Max Purcell.