Melbourne: When Evonne Goolagong Cawley first set eyes on Ash Barty in Melbourne, she was mesmerised.
Barty was only a teenager but she already had the style of the type of player the four-time Australian Open winner had been waiting for, for what felt like a lifetime, to emerge from the women’s ranks.
Seven-time Grand Slam champion Goolagong Cawley will be watching her friend play in the Australian Open final against Danielle Collins on Saturday from her lounge room in Queensland.
Similarly to Barty’s run to last year’s Wimbledon final, Goolagong Cawley has decided not to speak until after the world number one’s first Australian Open final.
That worked a treat last July.
After Barty broke through for a maiden major title at Roland Garros in 2019, she compared her style to Roger Federer.
“I remember seeing her for the first time during the Australian Open ... and I saw one point and she had every shot involved in that one point and all the skills came out and, even though she lost that match, I just knew she had it,” she said.
Barty’s athleticism is remarkable. Her team is small but, in line with current trends, features a mindset coach to sharpen her mind and well-being.
But in her style and demeanour, from her skidding sliced backhands to the humility with which she treats success, she is also a throwback to Australia’s golden generation.
Links to those champions are as strong as her serve, which has been broken only once in this Australian Open.
In addition to having Goolagong Cawley as a mentor, Barty is friends with Pat Rafter, the popular Australian once coached by Tony Roche, who in turn was a member of the generation of talent harnessed by legendary coach Harry Hopman.
Rod Laver has been courtside for her matches this week and is delighted by her progression since her return to the circuit after a break.
Laver is among the Australians who have been waiting 44 years for a new champion, dating back to Chris O’Neil’s success at Kooyong in 1978.
O’Neil, who will attend the final, told Melbourne newspaper The Age she has “enjoyed being a good trivia question” but will be delighted should Barty break the drought.
“She’s a one-off, I think,” she said.
The paint was peeling off the walls at Kooyong when O’Neil enjoyed her great moment. Melbourne Park, in contrast, is the envy of the tennis world with six sparking stadium courts.
But in keeping with her links to the greats, and also as a pointer to her laid-back attitude, Barty has said she would have loved to have played an Australian Open at Kooyong.
“I’ve said a couple of times I wish I was maybe born in a different era and I got to experience playing on grass courts all year long. It would have been incredible,” she said.
“But the development that has come with moving to Melbourne Park has been incredible to encourage fans to come and enjoy it with us.” The 25-year-old hopes to give fans an experience to remember on Saturday while writing her name into the record books.
“(I’ll) go out there and embrace it, smile, try and do the best that I can and whatever happens, happens,” she said.
Ash Barty vs Danielle Collins
(prefix number denotes seeding):
WTA ranking: 1
Grand Slam titles: 2 Career
WTA titles: 14
2021 Australian Open performance: Quarter-finals
Best Australian Open performance: Semi-finals (2020)
WTA ranking: 30
Grand Slam titles: 0
Career WTA titles: 2
2021 Australian Open performance: Second round
Best Australian Open performance: Semi-finals (2019)