By Ian Ransom
MELBOURNE (Reuters) – Bringing the world number one ranking and Grand Slam success to the Australian Open, home hero Ash Barty will carry a heavy burden of expectation to deliver the goods at Melbourne Park.
The stocky 23-year-old’s rollicking 2019 season has raised hopes she will end the country’s 42-year wait for a homebred winner at a Grand Slam where local entrants have rarely graced the second week over the past two decades.
Living up to a pantheon of Australian champions that includes the likes of Rod Laver and Margaret Court has proved beyond the nation’s leading players in the modern era.
Lleyton Hewitt was stopped in the 2005 final by an inspired Marat Safin and fellow former world number one Pat Rafter could go no further than the semi-finals.
Wimbledon winner Pat Cash was denied in back-to-back finals in the 1980s by the mighty Swedish duo of Stefan Edberg and Mats Wilander.
Sam Stosur, the country’s most recent Grand Slam title winner before Barty, has never made it past the fourth round, the one-time U.S. Open champion’s muscular shoulders seizing up with stage-fright on the showcourts.
Barty made the quarter-finals at Melbourne Park last year, so she has already had a taste of the prime-time appearances, heaving crowds and hungry media scrums sure to follow her in Australia.
But at last year’s tournament, she was still an unproven, if popular, talent with a modest 15th seeding and made it through to the last eight of a slam for the first time at Melbourne Park.
The attention will be stronger this time round, having made her major breakthrough at the French Open and become her country’s first female world number one since Evonne Goolagong-Cawley.
Barty had a dose of the home-town pressure at the Fed Cup final in Perth in November, when the weight of carrying the Australian team finally took its toll against France.
Riding a 15-rubber winning streak in the tournament, she was overhauled by underdog Kristina Mladenovic in the reverse singles then lost the decisive doubles with Stosur to finish the season with a tinge of regret.
Mladenovic’s win will have encouraged the Australian’s rivals, particularly those boasting the Frenchwoman’s firepower and heart.
Although blessed with an outstanding all-court game, Barty can be vulnerable to sustained pressure from big hitters who can take away her time and space to control points with craft.
Barring Caroline Wozniacki’s counter-punching triumph at the 2018 Australian Open, baseline pounders have ruled over Melbourne Park in recent years.
Barty will need to produce something special to buck that trend and become Australia’s first multiple Grand Slam singles winner since Hewitt, who triumphed at Wimbledon (2002) and the U.S. Open (2001).
Win or lose, the hugely popular Queenslander can be relied upon to exit with head held high and savor her tournament over a couple of cold beers.
“The challenge for me is to come out here and enjoy it, soak up the crowd, soak up the fact that as Australians we get to spend the first month in Australia,” she said earlier this month.
“It’s pretty special.”
(Editing by Pritha Sarkar)