Australian Open 2022: Last Australian women’s champion tips Ash Barty to end singles title drought
Chris O’Neil, the last home-grown woman or man to win an Australian Open singles title, has never met Ash Barty.
Instead, the 1978 champion has admired Australia’s world No.1 from a distance, from her humble personality to the throwback playing style that befuddles rival after rival.
O’Neil typically shies away from the limelight but accepted tournament boss Craig Tiley’s invitation on Wednesday to fly down from Port Macquarie and attend Saturday night’s final.
At that stage, there was just hope that Barty would make it that far.
Now the dual grand slam singles champion has advanced to the final – conceding a measly 21 games without dropping a set – the hope is just as great that she will end the title drought.
O’Neil is also keen to meet Barty in person for the first time, ideally in the scenario she is congratulating her long-awaited successor.
“It’s a bit of a trivia question and I’ve enjoyed having (that status) for 44 years, but I couldn’t think of handing it over to a nicer person,” O’Neil told News Corp.
“I’m very happy and excited for her. I’ve had it for long enough and I think it’s inevitable, anyway.
“If she doesn’t win it this year, which I think she will, she will eventually do it, so it’s on its way out, anyway.”
O’Neil was last at Melbourne Park four years ago for the 40th anniversary of her singles triumph, which came in a 32-player draw, on Kooyong’s grass-courts and held at the opposite end of the year.
“It was a different era,” she said.
“Different racquet technology, different court surface, different preparation, different money – it was a different game to how it is today.
“There is so much depth in the game today, a lot more countries playing, a lot more money, a lot more competition, so it’s hard to compare those eras.”
O’Neil and her fellow Australian players used to spend up to 10 months overseas each year in those days, but she came home early before that tournament to put in a longer preparation.
Even then, the world No.111 had no expectation of achieving what she did, culminating in her upsetting American eighth seed Betsy Nagelsen 6-3 7-6 in the final.
“I just wanted to give myself a good chance, but no way did I ever think that was going to happen,” O’Neil said.
“It wasn’t a particularly strong field but you can only beat who’s in the field and do your best.”
O’Neil’s had two hip replacements and a knee replacement over the years and her tennis involvement these days consists of coaching a handful of kids as a hobby.
But she’s been glued to the TV watching Barty’s journey to the final, as she is every Australian Open, and would love to see a fairytale ending on Saturday.
“Ash is a fabulous individual and a great ambassador for sport, tennis, women, her culture and her country,” O’Neil said.
“She seems like a delightful human being, who is very normal and very humble.
“Her game style is different from the slog-from-the-baseline play and that’s exactly how she dismantles them.
“She just looks comfortable in her own skin and, as she said in her post-match interview, she’s happy to be playing her best tennis at home.”
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