Ashleigh Barty looks to become first Australian player to win home tournament in 44 years

On Thursday at the Australian Open, Ashleigh Barty walked to the microphone with a hint of emotion on her face. She smiled when Jim Courier, the on-court interviewer, announced exactly what she had done.

She had just defeated Madison Keys in just over an hour and advanced to her first final at the Australian Open. She knew that this was more than just her. The fans did too.

It has been 44 years since an Australian won the title at the Australian Open, and with each passing year, the expectations on those atop the game are even greater. Barty has been seen as the country's best hope to reverse course since he won the French Open and Wimbledon in the same year.

She will have her chance now. Barty will face Danielle Collins on Saturday with a chance to become the first Australian woman to win a Grand Slam tournament. Barty is a student of the game. She has.

Ahead of the tournament, Barty said that he knew. I can only do that. It doesn't happen if it doesn't happen.

I have to hope that everyone understands that I am giving it my best shot. It doesn't always work out how you want it to. You go about it the right way, do the right things, and give yourself the best chance.

Over the past five decades, Australians have had success abroad, but at home it has been a different story. Four of the five who have won Grand Slam singles titles have only made four final appearances.

The nation is rich in tennis history, resources and talent.

Australians dominated their home event until the start of the Open era in 1968, due to its isolated geographic location and the fact that local players dominated the draws. Even with more and more foreign stars competing at the tournament, Australians Rod Laver, Margaret Court, Ken Rosewall, John Newcombe and Evonne Goolagong still won.

When Chris O&Neil won in 1978, no one knew what to think, and it would be the last time for an Australian champion.

After a decade of dominant brilliance from Goolagong, in which she won four Australian Open titles, as well as trophies at the French Open and Wimbledon, O'Neil arrived at the 1978 Australian Open ranked No. 110 in the world. She became the first unseeded winner of a Grand Slam after her 6-3, 6-7 (3), 6-3 victory over Betsy Nagelsen.

Mary Sawyer reached the final the following year after O&Neil's triumph, and Wendy Turnbull did the same in 1980. Chris Evert defeated Turnbull in the 1981 and 1984 semifinals to win the title. In the final four, she lost toHelena Sukova in straight sets.

After the start of the new millennium, there were two Australian women in the quarterfinals, one in 2005 and the other in 2009. In 20 main draw singles attempts at the tournament, Sam Stosur failed to advance past the fourth round. She knew her career run at the event was considered a failure after her second-round loss.

In some ways, I was never able to play my best tennis here in Australia a lot of the time.

It has been an even longer dry spell on the men's side. Since Mark Edmondson won the 1976 Open, Cash, Hewitt and Kim Warwick have reached the final, but the 46-year deficit remains. It will live to see at least another year, as no Australian male advanced past the fourth round this fortnight.

The 1980s were the most successful decade for the Aussies, with Cash and Warwick reaching the final. Cash couldn't achieve the same feat back home, even though he took the 1987 Wimbledon title.

The 1990s were a dismal spell for men's singles at their own Slam, with just two quarterfinalists -- Mark Woodforde in 1996 and Rafter in 1993 -- but the emergence of Rafter and Hewitt gave them hope near the start of the century. In 2001, Rafter lost to Agassi in a five-set semifinal, and in 2005, he lost to Marat Safin in the final of the Australian Open. The best finish for a local talent has been the loss to Andy Murray.

She said that she would love for another Australian to win it and take it over.

Australia is still waiting.

By the time Barty arrived on the scene with a Wimbledon junior title as a 15-year-old in 2011, Australian tennis was desperate for a savior. She reached the Australian Open doubles final with fellow countrywoman Casey Dellacqua and looked to be on her way to superstar status.

The early pressure was too much. She took a break from the sport and even played professional cricket. She made it to the third round at the Australian Open. Barty went to Melbourne as the Australian No. 1 after three appearances in the final. There were questions about whether she could end the drought.

She fell in the third round after embracing the demands of the home crowd. She came to the Open as one of the favorites and the hype went up even more. She understood.

Barty said at the time that Australians were hungry for sport. They like it. They are addicted to it. I think at this time of the year, they look for an Australian player to go deep and have a really good run, because tennis is always floating around with that.

Barty's best finish in the tournament was a semifinal loss to Kenin. She made it to the quarterfinals in both of the years.

She has won everywhere else. She won five titles, including Wimbledon, and earned an Olympic bronze medal in mixed doubles.

When Ash Barty took the court for her opening-round match at the Australian Open, the crowd was at an all-time high and the hype around her was at an all-time high. Even with crowd restrictions due to the virus, the Aussie, Aussie, Aussie chants were loud and plentiful.

It is not easy to win a Grand Slam. The stakes are high, the stress is enormous, and the talent and quality of opposition is even more so.

Adding to the expectations of an entire nation and having to see it all on a daily basis is something that should be done. During the last two weeks of January, Barty's face is everywhere in Australia, on billboards, the sides of trams and on television. Her run at the tournament is followed by a lot of people in her country and her results top the front page of newspapers.

Her matches have all been played on the main show court at Rod Laver Arena, which has a highly spirited partisan crowd and is usually during the prime-time slot. Even 20-time major champion Rafael Nadal has not been given such considerations. Barty knows that she is the center of attention.

When you finally make it to the last days of the tournament, you can feel a sense of expectation sitting on your shoulder because of the build up of pressure. I think it is more difficult to win in your home nation than it is in a foreign nation.

Fans were approaching her in the supermarket to talk about her results. After being stunned in the first round of the 2012 Australian Open, just months after her maiden Slam victory in New York, she said the pressure took a physical toll.

It affects you physically, and that is the easiest sign to see. I know what is happening inside. I think it is easy to see that you tighten up, your shoulders are tight, and you don't hit the ball.

When anyone is nervous, I think the first thing that goes is their feet. You do not move your feet as well. It is easy for other things to break down once that breaks down.

Barty has not shown any of the signs of nerves, panic or doubt. She has handled her opponents with ease and has been steely in her resolve. She has yet to lose a set and has held her service games for over eight matches.

By the quarterfinals, Barty was the last Australian standing, after she beat Lesia Tsurenko, Lucia Bronzetti, and others. Since the tournament moved to the grounds in 1988, she has become the first Australian to advance to four straight quarterfinals.

Her victory over Jessica Pegula was the most impressive. Barty needed just over an hour to win the match. It was later called themaster class from Ash.

Her semifinal win over Keys, who had recorded two top 10 wins in her previous two matches, was more of the same. Barty dominated from the start, breaking Keys in the first game, and never looked back.

The hopes continued to grow with each match. The court which bears his name for the match against Anisimova is attended by many believers.

She has beaten most of the players on the circuit, so it would be great for me if she won the Australian. If she can play her game when the chips are down, that's all that matters. She is unbeatable when she is playing tennis.

I think this particular tournament could bring her to another level because she is ready to say something big.

Barty smiles after matches and interviews, flashing her now-trademark thumbs up. She has been shielding herself from everything since she was a child, and has spent little time outside of the tournament grounds or her hotel.

That can only help her, as well as a unique scenario in 2022.

She is very typical of Australian and has a relaxed attitude, according to her coach, Tim Cahill.

I think that the Novak Djokovic situation really dominated the coverage, which may have helped a little bit. For two weeks leading up to the first day, everything was about the man. It helped remove some of the pressure on her shoulders early on, because people in the media were talking about who has a chance to win. She was able to relax.

She has gotten used to being in the spotlight and handling pressure. Two years ago, Barty lost to Kenin in the semifinals, but she knows that she has changed since then.

Barty said that she feels like she is a more complete tennis player. I have a couple more years of experience under my belt and I can solve problems on the court.

I am absolutely loving playing out here and it is bringing a smile on my face regardless of what is happening during the points. It has been a lot of fun so far. Hopefully there is more left.

Barty is at the center of a perfect storm, with her incredible play, resilient spirit and having become accustomed to the glare of the burning spotlight.

The odds are very much in her favor. The final will be hard. Collins has a better career record against Barty than she does against her, as evidenced by their most recent meeting in the round of 16 at Adelaide in 2021. The French Open champion was dismantled by Collins in the semifinals.

Barty's coach, Craig Tyzzer, who is also Australian, said they don't talk about what's at stake and that the preparation is the same as anywhere else.

She was the last Australian to reach the home Slam final, but her experience will be vastly different to Barty. It had only been two years since O'Neil's victory, but no one was talking about a dry spell then.

They are now, and that includes the woman. She echoed all Australian tennis fans in an interview in 2020.

Barty is going to end the 44-year wait for more on Saturday at Rod Laver Arena.