Ashleigh Barty has reached the semi-finals of the Australian Open for the first time in her career following her victory over Petra Kvitová in Melbourne.
The current World Number One, Barty’s second potential Grand Slam singles title may prove to be the most significant of her burgeoning and revitalized career, but not simply for the athlete herself.
Barty has won eight singles titles and ten doubles titles on the WTA Tour, including another Grand Slam doubles title at the 2018 US Open with partner CoCo Vandeweghe. She is also the reigning champion in singles at the WTA Finals.
23-year-old Barty announced herself to the wider world last June by beating Markéta Vondroušová in straight sets at Roland Garros to win her first Grand Slam, the French Open. It cemented her return to the sport which she had walked away from in the mid-tweenies in order to pursue a career in professional cricket, a hiatus from tennis that lasted for 17 months.
Preceding that she had won the junior girls’ title at Wimbledon in 2011, an occasion that stamped expectation for a promising career. With victory in Paris, Barty became the first Australian to win a singles title at the event in 46 years, ever since all-time women’s Grand Slam leader Margaret Court did so for the penultimate of her 24 titles in 1973.
Barty now has the opportunity to become the first Australian since Lleyton Hewitt in 2005 to qualify for an Australian Open singles final. Should she manage to do so, she’ll be hoping to fare a little better than the double-Grand Slam champ 15 years ago (Hewitt having lost to Marat Safin as that elite homeland victory eluded him).
The whole nation of Australian will almost unanimously be urging Barty to do so also.
There hasn’t been a native women’s singles champ of the Australian Open since Chris O’Neil in 1978, a player who continued a long reign that produced 10 out of 11 Australian champions from the late 60s to the late 1970s, of which the legendary Evonne Goolagong produced four. Barty is the first Australian woman to reach the Open semi-final since Wendy Turnbull in 1984, (Turnbull also being the most recent finalist in 1980).
But more importantly, aside from the stats, facts, and footstep-following, this is about Barty’s small contribution to healing Australia.
This is a nation beleaguered by the wildfires that have been raging and unrelenting since the last quarter of 2019. Thousands of people have been displaced, 34 have been killed (including seven firefighters) and a billion animals have been estimated to have died.
The ‘megafires’ which are not expected to cease for several more months are estimated to have eventually caused upwards of $110 billion worth of damage and 10 million hectares of land have been affected - that equates to an area equal to 77% of England, or the entirety of South Korea. The black carbon health hazard that has been produced has stretched over 7000 miles to reach across the Pacific Ocean to hit South America.
Though in the scheme of things one of the least important priorities, Australian sport was also affected. The smoke pollution had threatened to derail the Australian Open with concerns regarding visibility and air quality in Melbourne, with the city at one point in mid-January being registered as being worst in the world as a result: Slovenian player Dalila Jakupovic had to retire from her match, visibly affected after going into coughing fits.
It all underpins that while the show must go on, it had to do so against a devastatingly determined backdrop that has perspectively minimalised one of the premier events on the sporting calendar.
Barty has the chance to provide some much-needed reprieve to the tired, exhausted, and suffering country amid its worst natural disaster in recent records. Twenty years after Olympic runner Cathy Freeman endeared herself further to the nation, adorned in a green and white full bodysuit to take gold at the XXVII Olympiad in Sydney in the 400m, dropping to the track floor as thousands of Australian flags were held aloft, it is the opportunity for another fellow athlete of Aboriginal descent to place herself in the collective hearts and minds.
Hopes for a male Aussie tennis hero were dashed with Nick Kyrgios’ defeat to Rafael Nadal in the fourth round. Earlier this year Kyrgios raised $4000 (Aus) to support the wildfire relief after he pledged a $200 donation for every ace he hit in the ATP Cup. Barty herself has pledged to donate her prize money from this particular tournament, on top of the $30,000 she had provided last year to the RSPCA to assist the support of wildlife affected.
Barty has already gone one better than her route last year which ended at the quarter-final stage. This year, standing in her way to the final is the American Sofin Kenin, an opponent one hopes won’t take the expected Rod Laver crowd’s adversity to her, to heart.
In Melbourne and across the country Barty is the face of the Open and of tennis, plastering newspapers and advertisement boards everywhere. And why shouldn’t it be? Mere weeks into the New Year, Australia deserves to party with Barty once again.