Ash Barty becomes a rare champion who is both loved and feared in equal measure

Two matches before Ash Barty became the first Australian woman in 44 years to claim a home grand slam, another of her vanquished opponents explained the dilemma with admirable candour: “I think she’s definitely living in everyone’s head a little bit.”

That was Jessica Pegula, who’d just been wiped off the court in an hour — a 6-2, 6-0 quarter-final demolition.

It was of a piece with Barty’s total dominance of her preliminary opponents, dispatched in average match times of 61 minutes, only one Barty service game lost along the way.

Perhaps we will look back on this as the Australian sporting summer in which the only people who disappeared faster than English tailenders were Barty’s opponents, but Pegula’s comment showed how effortlessly Barty inverts the cliches of Australian sport: she never stops smiling, yet rivals fear her.

Ash Barty and Danielle Collins pose with a child at the net before the Australian Open final.
It seems many opponents have already mentally lost to Barty before even stepping on court with her, but not Collins.(Getty: Quinn Rooney)

In a final whose scoreline hinted at only limited resistance from the loser, American Danielle Collins was dogged, brave, and in patches, not a little brilliant.

Collins is often described as a “hustler”, which in tennis can generally be taken to mean that she didn’t rise through ritzy academies, insulated from reality by family wealth. Among other hurdles, she has overcome endometriosis. She’s as tough as teak.

Against Barty, it still wasn’t enough.

Was Barty in her head, as Pegula put it? One-eyed and impolite spectators certainly were. In her best moments, Collins channelled the fury she felt at the crowd’s interjections and threw it back at Barty with interest. Two of those moments shaped the result.

The first was in Barty’s third service game of the match. Swinging wildly for big winners, Collins cracked a brutal backhand across the court, not just winning a break opportunity but sowing seeds of doubt in the Australian.

Ash Barty serves in her Women's Singles Final match against Danielle Collins
Ashleigh Barty of Australia serves in her Women’s Singles Final match against Danielle Collins of United States during day 13 of the 2022 Australian Open at Melbourne Park on January 29, 2022 in Melbourne, Australia.(Getty: Mark Metcalfe)

It will be forgotten quickly, but in that instant, the contest teetered stressfully.

Barty’s response was always going to guide what followed. She steadied herself and held with an ace whose effect was threefold: the survival of her mini-ordeal seemed to free her up; Collins, meanwhile, tensed up and conceded a break in her next service game; the crowd was so relieved by Collins’s crucial error that they cheered the crucial double fault.

In context, was the latter item forgivable? Not in Collins’s eyes.

Hence the second ‘moment’ on which the contest pivoted. The minute she walked out for the second set, Collins was breathing fire — not just windmilling winners with an awesome indignance, but bouncing around the baseline and baiting the arena, her eyes as wild as her forehand.

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