Wimbledon 2021 | Ash Barty must prepare for ‘crazy’ Australian Open in Melbourne

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Ash Barty will have to prepare for a “crazy” time when she returns to Melbourne for next year’s Australian Open, according to leading tennis commentator Sam Smith.

And while the weight of expectation has already driven Barty away from the sport once before, Smith says this time the Australian is much better equipped to handle the chaos.

When the world No.1 takes to court at Melbourne Park in January, it will be 41 years since an Australian woman has entered the tournament as the reigning Wimbledon champion.

It was a totally different Open back then, starting on Boxing Day and running through into the first week of January. Played on the grass courts of Kooyong, the draw consisted of just 56 players, rather than the 128 we’re accustomed to today.

The eight seeds didn’t even need to bother turning up for the start of the tournament, they had a bye into the second round.

Barty will desperately hope to avoid the fate that befell her idol, Evonne Goolagong Cawley, who, six months after winning Wimbledon, crashed out in her first match of the Australian Open, the second seed beaten in three sets by a former French Open champion, Mima Jaušovec.

“It’s incredibly hard, there’s a reason why an Aussie hasn’t won in Melbourne for a very long time,” Smith told Wide World of Sports.

“Winning a slam at home is super tough, but Ash is now very good at defusing pressure. She’s worked at it, because the pressure nearly destroyed her all those years ago. She’s been through that, and makes it a priority to manage how she’s feeling.

“Yes, the pressure will be insane in Melbourne, but I feel she’s got the tools and resilience to do it. Because the pressure destroyed her love of the game a few years, it’s now her number one priority to defuse it. She’s got her golf, the AFL, her family, it just puts tennis in perspective for her.”

Having now added a Wimbledon title to her Roland Garros victory in 2019, as well as a long stint at the top of the rankings, Barty is firmly ensconced as one of the elite players of her era. Indeed, we may be on the verge of one the game’s great rivalries, with Barty and Naomi Osaka seemingly a level above their peers.

Osaka already has four grand slam titles, all on hard courts, while Barty’s have come on clay and now grass. Due to the vagaries of sport, the two have never peaked at the same time. Indeed, they’ve only ever faced each other once at a grand slam, when a relatively unknown Osaka beat Barty in the third round of the 2018 Australian Open.

“People say tennis doesn’t need rivalries. You absolutely need rivalries, and that would be a great one,” Smith explained.

“There’s only a couple of years in age between Osaka and Ash, that would be wonderful.

“You need them to play slam finals, that’s when you get a rivalry. You think about (Martina) Navratilova and (Chris) Evert, one of the greatest rivalries known in sport, not just tennis. They played each other a lot, in matches that meant so much. That’s what needs to happen here.”

Osaka has won the last two slams played on hard courts, in New York in 2020 and Melbourne earlier this year. But Smith sees no reason for the Australian not to challenge the Japanese star at either the US or Australian Opens.

“The thing about Ash is I think she’ll get better,” Smith said.

“She’s not at her physical peak yet. Her double-hander is going to improve, I think she can get even more out of the serve. There’s so much more to come – even her forehand volley could be better.

“She’s only going to improve in the next few years. I would love to see someone winning a couple of slams each year, maybe the calendar year grand slam is on, it would be lovely to have a couple of really big figures in the game.”

Smith did sound one note of caution for Barty, and that surrounds the amount of emotional energy expended this year, with travel bans making it all but impossible for her to return home to Queensland until the end of the year.

“She’s a great player, she loves the game, so it’s about staying healthy and getting through this year,” Smith said.

“I think this year will take quite a toll, being away from home for so long. I was really pleased to see (boyfriend) Garry (Kissick) appear just before Wimbledon, I hear he came over via the United States.”

Just six Australian women have won a grand slam singles title in the Open era, and just three – Margaret Court, Goolagong Cawley and Barty – have won two or more.

In a time where the women’s grand slams have been spread around – there are currently 18 active major champions – Smith says Barty can certainly add the two hard court slams to her collection.

“If she stays healthy she’s going to win a lot more slams,” she explained.

“I feel like the career grand slam is achievable, she’s going to be one of the favourites for the gold medal in Tokyo, it’s a big few years ahead if she can keep the body together and stay on top of things mentally.

“This is even more of a greater achievement because she’s without her family at the moment, and she knows she won’t see them for a long time. Add to that the fact she quit the sport, it wasn’t as though she was a great junior who just transitioned to seniors and won grand slams.

“They’ll make a movie out of this. I think that’s why she was quite emotional on court, it just all hit her.”

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