Ashleigh Barty was 11 or 12 the first time she attended a final at the Australian Open. As a young player there as part of a training camp, she was amazed by how professional it was and how all of the players were so focused.
Being there sparked something in her.
"Being able to get a taste of that kind of lit the flame," Barty said earlier this week. "You wonder what you can achieve. You wonder what you can do."
On Saturday, more than a decade after her first experience at Rod Laver Arena, Barty left herself, and all those watching, little to wonder about as she defeated Danielle Collins, 6-3, 7-6 (2), in the Australian Open final to become the first Australian player, of either gender, to win the singles title in 44 years. As an adoring and vocal crowd looked on, Barty made history.
The pressure had gotten to other top Australian players before, even those who had won majors elsewhere. The weight of the expectations was simply too much to endure. Barty had struggled with pressure early in her career, even taking a break from playing as a heralded teenager for a year and a half, and later, as the No. 1 player in the world during the previous two Australian Open tournaments, where she simply hadn't played her best tennis. Her face was everywhere, and she dominated the local headlines, but she lost in the semifinals in 2020 and the quarterfinals in 2021.
But this time was different. The hype was still there, but now Barty welcomed it.
"[I] absolutely embrace [the attention]," Barty said Thursday. "You have to. It's fun. It's brilliant to be playing in the business end of your home Slam. I'm not gonna lie about that. It's amazing...
"I go out there and embrace it, smile, try and do the best that I can and whatever happens, happens."
That change in mindset seemed to make all the difference.
Barty, 25, steamrolled through her competition throughout the fortnight, never dropping a set. With each victory, the collective hope grew bigger. Chris O'Neil, the last Aussie to emerge victorious at the home Slam in 1978, was there on Saturday. So was Rod Laver, for whom the court is named. As was Academy Award winner Russell Crowe. Everyone wanted to watch as Barty tried to do what had started to seem impossible.
After a dominant first set, Barty struggled in the opening games of the second, showing the first hint of nerves she has displayed all season. And Collins pounced. With Barty suddenly trailing 5-1, a third set seemed near certain. But Barty did what she has done throughout the tournament and stayed calm and composed and rattled off point by point until she had leveled the score. Ultimately needing a tiebreak, Barty left nothing to chance and won seven of the next nine points to clinch the victory and her third major title.
When it was over, sealed with a forehand winner, Barty could no longer hide the emotions undoubtedly having built up for two weeks, or perhaps all of those years since she first wondered whether she could do it while sitting in the stands at Rod Laver Arena. The typically unflappable Barty clenched her fists and yelled -- roared, really -- as the crowd jumped to its feet and screamed along with her.
The outburst of emotion didn't last long, but it was a fleeting glimpse of just how much the title meant to her. Moments later, in yet another display of what Barty means to Australia, she was surprised by her lifelong hero, mentor and national legend Evonne Goolagong Cawley, herself a four-time champion at the tournament, during the trophy presentation. Barty started her victory speech by saying she was "a little stumped," but after never faltered. She thanked those on her team, as well as her family, and the tournament officials. Then she turned her focus to the crowd.
"As an Aussie, the most important part of this tournament is being able to share it with so many people, and you guys today in the crowd have been nothing short of exceptional," Barty said. "This crowd is one of the most fun I've ever played in front of, and you guys brought me so much joy out there today, you relaxed me, you forced me to play my best tennis, and against a champion like Danielle, I knew I had to absolutely bring that today...
"This is just a dream come true for me, and I'm so proud to be an Aussie."
Barty is now in rarefied company among Australians -- and in the sport. She joins Serena Williams, Roger Federer, Rafael Nadal and Novak Djokovic as the only active players to have won Grand Slams on all three surfaces. The expectations and pressure will only grow larger from here, but now Barty seems prepared and ready for all that comes next.
The spark has been fully ignited.
In addition to all of the history and thrills in Saturday's final, it's been an incredible two weeks of tennis Down Under. In case you were busy, well, sleeping during most of the tournament, here's what you might have missed from the women's draw:
The return of Naomi Osaka and her joy for the game
After Naomi Osaka took a break from competitive tennis following her third-round exit at the US Open in the fall, few knew when she would return or what to expect from her when she did. But the four-time major champion launched her comeback at a lead-in event in Melbourne earlier this month and reached the semifinals before withdrawing with an injury.
And at the Australian Open, where she arrived as the defending champion, she showed few signs of rust in her first two matches, beating Camila Osorio and Madison Brengle in straight sets. Even during tight moments on the court, she looked happier and more relaxed than she had in some time, and she was frequently spotted smiling in between points. Even after Osaka lost to Amanda Anisimova in the third round, she had a warm exchange with her opponent at the net and brought a positive and refreshed attitude into her postmatch news conference.
"I fought for every point," Osaka said. "I can't be sad about that. You know, I'm not God, I can't win every match. So I just have to take that into account and know that it would be nice to win the tournament, but that's, like, really special. I can't win the Grand Slam at the start of the year every time.
"For me, I feel like I grew a lot in this match. The last match that I played [at the US Open], I think I had a completely different attitude, so I'm really happy with -- you know, of course I lost, but I'm happy with how it went."
So while 24-year-old Osaka didn't bring the Daphne Akhurst Memorial Cup back home with her this time, she left Melbourne with something perhaps even better: her joy and love for the sport.
The youth movement
After Emma Raducanu's and Leylah Fernandez's star-making turns at the US Open, there was an onslaught of attention on the young players at the Australian Open. Both players went from relative unknowns to in-demand A-listers. Fans and pundits alike wanted to know how they would fare in their follow-up Grand Slam, as well as how other rising stars, such as Coco Gauff and Carlos Alcaraz, would do.
Well, we got our answer: Not great.
Raducanu played with a blister on her right hand that severely affected her ability to hit and lost in the second round to Danka Kovinic. Fernandez was upset in the first round by wild card Maddison Inglis, 6-4, 6-2. Gauff, who made the fourth round at the tournament in 2020, also fell 6-4, 6-2 in her opener.
Of course other young players certainly made their mark. 2020 French Open champion Iga Swiatek, who is 20, reached the semis. Anisimova, also 20, had a statement win over Osaka, and 19-year-olds Clara Tauson and Marta Kostyuk made their marks as well.
So the future remains bright for the sport and for all of the players mentioned here, but with so much depth in tennis, especially in the women's game, it's hard to think teenagers -- or any age group -- would dominate at every event and it's unfair to put such expectations on anyone.
To quote Fernandez's Instagram post after her loss, "Onwards and upwards!"
The ultimate Cinderella story
For every young prodigy who bursts onto the global scene with a deep run at a Grand Slam, there are countless others who have been grinding on tour for years, just hoping for that one tournament to make their mark.
For many, that moment that never comes. But that can no longer be said about Alize Cornet. The 32-year-old from France had played in every single major since the start of the 2007 season and had never advanced past the fourth round.
That is, until this year. In the main draw for the 63rd major of her career, Cornet beat three seeded players -- including two-time major champions Garbine Muguruza and Simona Halep -- en route to her first quarterfinals. Her achievement marked the most majors played before reaching a quarterfinal in the history of the Open era, shattering the previous record of 54.
After holding off Halep in three sets in the round of 16 in brutally hot conditions, Cornet dropped to her knees and covered her face as the tears fell down her face.
And for anyone left who hadn't already been won over by her heartfelt celebration on court after the victory, she got them with an emotional and earnest interview with former player Jelena Dokic.
"It's never too late to try again," Cornet said.
Cornet ultimately lost to Collins, 7-5, 6-1, in the quarterfinals. Cornet said that the experience and outpouring of love on social media was overwhelming and that she likely spent too much time "responding to every single person" ahead of the match. Still, she wouldn't change a thing.
"I don't have any regrets because this was something I was waiting for such a long time," Cornet said. "I just wanted to take this love and enjoy it."
Support for Peng Shuai
Tennis players, fans and activists have been asking about the status and whereabouts of two-time major doubles champion Peng Shuai since she disappeared from social media in November. The 36-year-old accused Zhang Gaoli, a former high-ranking Chinese government official, of pressuring her into sex on her Weibo account. The post was deleted moments later, and she hasn't posted since.
Since then, Peng has been spotted a handful of times in various public places, but her well-being and freedom continue to be questioned. The WTA has since said it wouldn't hold tournaments in China until Peng's safety could be properly confirmed, and many players have voiced their concerns.
So naturally, it came as a great surprise to many around the world when fans at Melbourne Park were asked by security to take off a T-shirt that had "Where is Peng Shuai?" written on it early in the tournament. The clip of the interaction went viral immediately, and fans were outraged.
Amid the public outcry, the tournament reversed its stance. Not only were fans permitted to display such a message but a group even distributed shirts with the message to fans, for free, ahead of the women's final Saturday.
Eight empty boxes, we've given out more than 900 "Where Is Peng Shuai" shirts for the Australian Open Women's Final tonight. All for free. Such a great success. Catch us on the broadcast! pic.twitter.com/dr5cKNkF4h— Drew Pavlou For Senate (@DrewPavlou) January 29, 2022
Red, white and wahooo!
After a disappointing US Open in which no American reached the quarterfinals in men's or women's singles play for the first time in tournament history, some tennis fans were ready to push the panic button about the state of American tennis.
But those reppin' the Stars and Stripes responded in a big way. Starting of course with Collins, who, oh, you know, reached her first career major final. And she wasn't alone -- a resurgent Madison Keys made it to the semifinals, and Jessica Pegula played in her second-straight quarters in Melbourne. After her fourth-round victory, Pegula said watching her fellow Americans, including Anisimova in her third-round win over Osaka, inspired her.
"I think it's really cool," Pegula said. "It's so great to see. First of all, Amanda had a really tough year last year. She had a great win against Naomi. ... Honestly I took a lot of inspiration from watching that match as well because the hitting was incredible. Then to turn around to see Danielle and Tauson hitting in a crazy match really got me fired up for today.
"I think we all root for each other."
The last point
There was some incredible tennis in Saturday's final, as well as throughout the tournament, but perhaps there was no moment more epic than Swiatek's match point against Kaia Kanepi in their quarterfinal clash.
If you haven't yet seen it, please don't go a moment longer without rectifying that.
The defense! The slide! The celebration! This point had it all, and there might be nothing better to sum up this unpredictable-yet-wildly-entertaining Australian Open and the start of the 2022 season.