Tennis: Ashleigh Barty gives her crowd a chance to cheer


MELBOURNE - Rod Laver Arena is full but no one knows if Rod Laver is in his Arena. I can't see him. This great giant of a man is 173cm. But he's supposed to be somewhere in the premises, along with Roy Emerson and Tony Roche, all those terrific, beer-quaffing, wooden-racket wizards who won 24 Grand Slam singles titles between them.

What a grand time that was. What a sad time this is. Laver won the Grand Slam, which is all four major titles in a calendar year. (He did it twice; Fed, Rafa, Novak haven't done it once.) Next to his Arena is Margaret Court Arena, who leads the women with 24 Grand Slam singles titles.

History they made. Now it's controversy that is being stoked. This week has been about a sulking Bernard Tomic and a posturing Lleyton Hewitt and talk of threats. "This country really is a tennis soap opera" tweets Ben Rothenberg who writes for The New York Times.

It's why Ashleigh Barty matters.

She's why the Arena ignites; why the crowds chant and sing; why you can hear the pent-up emotion; why no one objects even to the idiot who goes 'woo-hoo' every damn point that Barty wins.

Because Barty is winning. And against Maria Sharapova.

There wasn't a single Australian man in the Open's last 16 and only one woman. Miss Barty. Natural athlete. Plays as if she thinks this is the 1960s, a retro-competitor with an old-fashioned backhand slice that hisses and sinks and a sliding serve that Laver and Roche must be swooning at. Not muscle, but craft.

Barty is pleasant, a no-frills hard worker who could be a character in a Bruce Springsteen song. "I'm just trying," she said later, "to fight as hard as I can for every single point, try and play the game in the right spirit, and play as hard as I can, play fairly and give it a crack." She's what the crowds needs and they give themselves to her.

This is an international Open, where no anthems should play, but as much as the crowds hail Rafa, and revere Roger, they want one of their own. Someone who represents them.

And now only Barty is left.

Sharapova has five Grand Slam titles but Barty, world No.15, is in fact ranked 15 places higher than her. So who is the underdog? The Russian has a well-known troublesome shoulder but she's familiar with fame and big matches. She'd been to 25 Grand Slam quarter-finals; Barty is playing for her first one.

People shriek, groan at her errors and hand out ovations. This is a 15,000-piece orchestra that's playing only Barty music. "Come on Ash," shouts a fellow.

Sharapova is unmoved, she's seen everything, heard everything. But Sharapova also loses her concentration after winning the first 6-4. Suddenly Barty has the second set 6-1 and is 4-0 in the third set. Momentum mayhem.

The sun is out, the atmosphere is heated. Australian tennis crowds know the sport and are historically generous but these days nationalism intrudes everywhere and it has an unworthy, ugly edge. Sharapova is booed after an extended toilet break and her double faults are applauded and her time violation for taking too long to serve is cheered. She is asked about it later and says, face blank: "What do you want me to say to that question?"

Drama embraces the end of the final set. Barty has two chances to break to 5-0 but Sharapova holds to 4-1, breaks Barty to 4-2, then holds to 4-3 and has two chances to break Barty to 4-4. But the Australian holds to 5-3. The crowd exhales. Tennis, at such times, is not entertaining, it is moving.

Barty serves for the match and has one match point, two, three. Sharapova won't fall and the crowd's heart rate is climbing. At one point the Australian hits a double fault and then follows it with an ace.

Then on her fourth match point, after 142 minutes and 176 points, she serves one last 173kmh ace down the middle. People say crowds boost players but on this day I'm not so sure. I think as the last point ends the crowd rises because they've been lifted by a 22-year-old. A single match from her has rescued a mediocre January.

Barty waves, she talks, then she goes and signs. Caps, a ball, some more caps. Then she hands the pen back to a security person. She has no need for it any more. History has been written.