MELBOURNE, Australia — It is all about choices, this game of tennis and life.
Down-the-line or crosscourt? Rip or chip? Stay home and rebuild your strength and well-being? Or hit the road in search of more points and glory?
The coronavirus pandemic that disrupted old patterns and created new problems has made some of the choices more complicated, but Ashleigh Barty is on a hot streak, as anyone who has played her in this Australian Open can confirm.
Madison Keys was the latest to swing away and come up short as Barty kept delivering pitches and tactical shifts that Keys could not handle. Barty won the first set of their semifinal on Thursday night in 26 minutes and won the match in just over an hour, 6-1, 6-3.
“As an Aussie, we’re exceptionally spoiled that we’re a Grand Slam nation and we get to play at home and in our backyard,” Barty said. “I’m just happy that I get to play my best tennis here. I enjoy it. I’ve done well before and now we have a chance to play for a title.”
Barty routinely uses “we” when discussing her tennis, wanting to incorporate her support team. But she is the one making history as the first Australian since Wendy Turnbull in 1980 to reach the women’s singles final at the Australian Open. Win on Saturday night, and she would be the first Australian singles champion here in 44 years.
But first she must get past the latest surprise in women’s tennis at a major: the big-hitting Danielle Collins of the United States, who trounced Iga Swiatek of Poland, 6-4, 6-1, in the second women’s semifinal.
Barty deserves to be the favorite based on her No. 1 ranking and precision under pressure over the last 11 days. But Collins, seeded 27th and a semifinalist here in 2019, is one of the most ferocious competitors in the game and has been serving and returning particularly well down the stretch in Melbourne.
She won 86 percent of the points against Swiatek’s second serve on Thursday.
“She loves to get in your face and loves to really take it on,” Barty said of Collins.
Barty leads their head-to-head series, 3-1, but Collins won their most recent match in straight sets in Adelaide, Australia, last year, and has twice pushed her to three sets in defeat. One of Barty’s victories over Collins came in the second round of the 2019 French Open, where Barty went on to win her first Grand Slam singles title. Barty also beat the Americans Jessica Pegula, Amanda Anisimova and Keys in that tournament, just as she has beaten them in this Australian Open.
Foreshadowing? Collins hopes not.
“We’ve had some incredible battles over the years,” Collins said. “To play against the No. 1 player in the world in her home country, I think it’s going to be really spectacular.” Even if Collins will be the equivalent of the visiting team, she said she will appreciate the atmosphere after playing in empty stadiums during the pandemic.
“I’m just really grateful to be able to see faces in the crowd again and to see people getting fired up, seeing positive energy, hearing people’s voices,” she said. “That’s something that I really thrive in, whether I have a full crowd going for me or whether I have the opposite or somewhere in the middle. I really just love the energy. I think that’s what all professional athletes play for.”
Collins, 28, is a two-time N.C.A.A. singles champion from the University of Virginia who turned professional later than most of her rivals on the WTA Tour. She is scrappy and demonstrative, but also possesses point-ending power, throwing herself into her shots and generating serious racket-head speed. She has hit a tournament-high 32 return winners.
“I was prepared for her playing an aggressive game, but I think that was the fastest ball I have ever played against in a match,” said Swiatek, 20, who won the 2020 French Open. “In practices I have hit maybe the same speed, but in matches it’s different because players don’t want to take that much risk. But it seemed for her that it wasn’t even risky, because she was playing it with control.”
Collins has come back convincingly in the last nine months after surgery for endometriosis. Since July, she has a 32-7 singles record and will rise to No. 10 in the rankings on Monday, becoming the top-ranked American, following players like Billie Jean King, Chris Evert, Martina Navratilova and Venus and Serena Williams.
“To be even in the same sentence with those women, it’s a real honor,” Collins said in an interview late Thursday night. “To be the top-ranked female means so much to me. It was not that long ago, only a few years ago, that I started with a ranking of zero.”
Collins, from a family of modest means in Florida, said she lacked the resources to travel and compete as much as she desired as a junior. But she had uncommon drive. “An utter warrior in singles,” said Geoff McDonald, the women’s tennis coach at Vanderbilt, who coached against her college teams.
Despite being seeded in Australia, Collins does not have a clothing contract, although she says she is enjoying picking out her own outfits for a change. She also does not have a traveling coach and is doing her own scouting work and match preparation, sifting through the analytics from her data service. Collins has battled in Melbourne with tough three-set victories over Clara Tauson in the third round and Elise Mertens in the fourth round.
Barty has yet to come close to dropping a set, and when Keys met Barty at the net after Thursday’s rout she was smiling as if to say: “You’re in the zone, Ash. Enjoy it.”
“I mean, you have a game plan in your head, but she’s just executing everything so well,” Keys said in her post-match news conference.
Barty’s variety is her strength, and as the match with Keys developed, she rarely gave the powerful American the same type of shot for long, mixing two-handed backhand drives with one-hand slices, off-speed angled forehands with bolts up the line.
“I think everything has just improved a little bit,” Keys said. “I think she’s gotten a little bit more precise on her serve. I think her forehand she’s doing a really good job at mixing up paces and spins, as well. It feels like you can’t really get in a rhythm off of that forehand side. Then on her backhand side, I mean, everything is coming in at your shoelaces on the baseline.”
Keys, who was on a 10-match winning streak, looked more resigned than glum.
Tennis may not mean as much to Australia as it did in the days of Rod Laver, Ken Rosewall, Margaret Court and Evonne Goolagong Cawley. But a Barty victory in Australia would certainly be a cultural happening. The 25-year-old from Brisbane is a particularly popular figure here with her down-to-earth personality and deep roots in the land: She is partly of Indigenous heritage.
A tennis prodigy, she took a 17-month break from the sport, beginning in 2014, as she struggled with the pressure of precocious success. But she chose to return in 2016 and has now been No. 1 for a total of 112 weeks and won her second major singles title at last year’s Wimbledon, prevailing in a mood-swinging final against Karolina Pliskova.
There have been no edgy matches so far in Melbourne, where she can become the first Australian to win the singles title since Chris O’Neil in 1978.
O’Neil was unseeded and ranked outside the top 100, one of the biggest surprise Grand Slam champions in tennis’s long history. Barty is the top-ranked player and the focus in her country whenever she plays. But she made another smart choice to cut her season short in 2021 and return home to Australia to recover after the U.S. Open, where she was upset in the third round.
She has started the 2022 season fresh, focused and devastatingly on target. She is 10-0 and has dropped just 21 games in six matches in Melbourne, striking a fine balance between finesse and power.
Next challenge: her first Australian Open singles final in Australian prime-time against Collins, a combative veteran who kept the celebration to a minimum after overwhelming Swiatek.
When Collins was asked what first came to mind when she heard the words “Danielle Collins Grand Slam finalist,” she thought for close to 10 seconds and then answered slowly: “The next task at hand. Trying to win the next match.”
It could be a good one.