The burden of national expectation that Lleyton Hewitt and Sam Stosur grew accustomed to carrying and which had fallen on Nick Kyrgios in recent times will sit on new shoulders when the Australian Open gets underway in Melbourne next week. After 41 years of hurt, the locals will be hoping that Ashleigh Barty can live up to her billing as the world No 1 and become the first Australian singles player to win her home Grand Slam tournament since Chris O’Neil took the women’s title in 1978. Mark Edmondson, in 1976, was the last Australian to win the men’s singles.
Despite Australia’s rich tennis history, the pressure of living up to the exploits of the likes of Rod Laver, Roy Emerson and Margaret Court has proved too much for subsequent generations. The two most recent Australian world No 1s, Hewitt and Pat Rafter, both failed to win the title in Melbourne, while Stosur, a former US Open champion and French Open runner-up, has never gone beyond the fourth round in 17 attempts. Kyrgios reached the quarter-finals five years ago but has been unable to match that performance since.
While it was Australian men who led the way in the 1950s and 1960s, it was the country’s women who dominated the early years of the open era, winning 10 of the first 11 Australian Opens from 1969 onwards. Court’s 24 Grand Slam singles titles (including 11 at her home event) remains a record for the sport.
Barty, nevertheless, does not regard Australia’s great traditions in tennis as a burden. “Not by any means,” the 23-year-old Queenslander told The Independent. “It’s very special to have that history, both on the men’s side and the women’s side. I think for me in particular being able to learn from so many of the past legends that have played on our female side for Australian tennis has been remarkable. We’re a country with a very strong history in tennis, but we’re also a country with a strong history in all different sports. Australia is a sporting nation. We love sport.”
She added: “Across all sports Australian spectators are very knowledgeable. They certainly get very invested in all different sports. It’s a really special time of year.”
Barty’s own form in front of home crowds has been patchy. At the age of 16 she was runner-up in the women’s doubles at the Australian Open alongside her fellow countrywoman Casey Dellacqua and last year she reached the final of the Sydney tournament for the second time in a row before making a good run to the quarter-finals in Melbourne, where she lost to Petra Kvitova.
However, Barty was beaten by Kristina Mladenovic at a crucial stage of the Fed Cup final two months ago against France in Perth and went on to lose the deciding doubles alongside Stosur. Barty also lost her first match of 2020 to Jennifer Brady, the world No 53, in Brisbane last week, though victories over Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova and Marketa Vondrousova have taken her into the semi-finals of this week’s Adelaide International in her final tournament before the Australian Open.
The win over Vondrousova was a timely reminder of the finest moment of Barty’s career so far, when she beat the Czech in the final of last year’s French Open to win her maiden Grand Slam title. It helped Barty climb to No 1 in the world rankings for the first time. The only other Australian woman who has topped the world singles rankings was Evonne Goolagong, who reigned for just two weeks in 1976.
Barty’s triumph at Roland Garros came during a run of 15 successive victories. During that sequence she also won the grass-court title at Edgbaston and reached the fourth round at Wimbledon before losing to Alison Riske.
“I’m still learning on all different surfaces,” Barty said. “Each court plays a little bit differently all around the world. The more I get exposed to it I suppose the more comfortable you feel, having had a bit more experience. I’m learning, but I’m loving every minute of it.”
Barty admitted that she would not have expected to win her first Grand Slam title on clay. “For us Aussies we’re a little bit hard court,” she said. “We’ve got hard courts all around the country. I never went on real clay until I went to Europe for the first time when I was a teenager. Going over to Europe having not been too experienced on clay before is a little bit of a different experience for us Australians, but I’ve played enough now on all different surfaces. I feel like I trust myself to play the right style and the right game on each surface.”
Last year Barty won tournaments on hard, clay and grass courts and threw in an indoor title for good measure when she won the year-end Shiseido WTA Finals in Shenzhen in November, earning the biggest prize in tennis history of $4,420,000 (about £3.4m).
That victory suggested Barty had little problem coping with the pressures of being world No 1, though she has had mental struggles in the past. In 2014 she took an 18-month break from the sport for what she describes only as “personal reasons”. During her time out she played cricket for the Brisbane Heat in the Women’s Big Bash League, Australia’s domestic Twenty20 competition.
Craig Tyzzer, Barty’s coach, has been a rock alongside her since she made her return to tennis, and in 2018 she added a mentor to her team in the shape of Ben Crowe, who has worked with a number of Australians across different sports.
“It was certainly a decision that has helped me get to where I am today and it’s also helped Tyzz in my relationship as well,” Barty said. “The best thing is that Crowey works with all of my team. It’s not just with me. And everyone is delivering the same message. We’re all on the same wavelength. We’ve got a really good team vibe around.”