World No 1 Ash Barty produced a bit of a masterclass to dismiss Jessica Pegula, 6-2 6-0, at the Australian Open on Tuesday, easing herself into the semi-finals where she will take on Madison Keys, a surprisingly comfortable winner over 4th-seeded Barbora Krejcikova, whom she dispatched, 6-3 6-2.
I've grown as a person, I've grown as a player. I feel like I'm a more complete. I'm a more complete tennis player and have more experience in problem-solving on the court. I'm absolutely loving playing out here. It's been a lot of fun so far and, hopefully, there's a little bit more left. Ash Barty
Barty took 3 minutes over the hour to get past Pegula, the 21st seed from the USA, and has yet to drop a set at the year’s first Grand Slam at Melbourne Park.
“That was solid tonight,” the Australian said in her on-court interview. “I had a lot of fun out here.
“I was able to serve and find a lot of forehands in the centre of the court, and not worry if I miss a couple.
“I was happy to take the game on.”
Hoping to break the host nation’s 44-year Open singles title drought, Barty will play another American in Keys, a former US Open runner-up, on Thursday for a place in the final.
Barty has lost just 17 games in 5 matches to reach her 4th Grand Slam semi-final, the second at her home major, while she is now also on a 9-match winning streak.
Bidding to become the first Australian women to lift the trophy since Chris O’Neil in 1978, Barty lifted her 3rd career title on home soil in Adelaide 3 weeks ago.
She previously reached the last four in Melbourne 2 years ago, losing to eventual champion Sofia Kenin, and is hoping to go the distance this time round.
“I’ve grown as a person, I’ve grown as a player,” Barty said. “I feel like I’m a more complete.
“I’m a more complete tennis player and have more experience in problem-solving on the court.
“I’m absolutely loving playing out here. It’s been a lot of fun so far and, hopefully, there’s a little bit more left.”
It was by no means plain sailing for the red-hot Aussie, who endured some wobbly moments in the opening games of the first set, sprinkling in a few uncharacteristic unforced errors, 16 to her 8 winners, but she never looked in any real danger after breaking in the opening game.
Pegula found only 2 winners to her 14 unforced errors in the opener, and was unable to take advantage of what proved to be a brief opportunity.
Barty broke her from 40-0 down in the first game, and held for 3-1 after Pegula netted a second serve return on break point.
Thereafter, Barty found her groove, and was at her ruthless best in the second, cruising through the remainder of the match with a run of 9 consecutive games and losing just 6 more points on her serve.
She was at her glorious best when she was carving up the court with short backhand slices to set herself up for a winning pass, and she found a superb lob to turn defence into offence to seal the first break of set two, always a step ahead of Pegula in every extended rally.
Barty finished the second set with 9 winners and 6 unforced errors, while Pegula added another 12 unforced errors to only 5 more winners.
The American had initially deployed a net-rushing strategy, but she could not find the execution at the start of the match, and later Barty, sensing weakness, brought her forwards repeatedly so that Pegula could only win 3 of her 12 net points overall.
Serving for the match, Barty held 3 match points in the final game and, despite losing one of them, a long return from Pegula settled the contest in the top seed’s favour.
“Jess is an incredible person, she’s a brilliant girl and I love to test myself against her – she made me play my best tennis,” Barty said. “She definitely is a top 20 player.
“I’m absolutely loving playing out here – it’s been a lot of fun so far so, hopefully, there’s a little more left.”
Barty will now do battle with Pegula’s compatriot Madison Keys in the semi-finals, with the American seeing off Barbora Krejcikova in straight sets to reach the final four.
“It’s so nice to have Maddy back playing her best tennis doing what she does best – she’s one of the most incredible girls in the locker room,” Barty added.
“We’ve played in all different circumstances – I can’t wait, I know it will be a good one.”
Keys has been resurgent this season, advancing to the AO semi-finals for the first time in 7 years.
Her 6-3 6-2 quarter-final win over Krejcikova, the French Open champion, was her 10th match win in a row and 11th of the new year.
She served up 11 aces and 27 winners in the process, and dropped just one just service game on Tuesday, already equalling her total number of 11 wins in 2021.
“I did everything I could to rest this off-season and focus on starting fresh and new . . . starting from zero and not focusing on last year,” Keys said in her on-court interview. “I think it’s going well so far!”
Last week, Keys gave more details on how terrible 2021 was for her.
“I was just at a very high anxiety level all of the time,” Keys said. “I wasn’t sleeping as well. It felt like there was literally a weight on my chest just because I became so focused and obsessed with it that I wasn’t enjoying really anything because it’s all that I was thinking about.”
Her year-end ranking slumped to 56, and it was the first time since 2014 that she had finished outside the Top 20.
Now she is feeling an entirely different player as she lines up to face Barty.
“I’m seven years older and it’s not my first semi-final of a Slam,” she said. “I think I’m a little bit more prepared this time around than I was all those years ago.”
Nowadays, before Keys plays a match, her new coach Georgi Rumenov likes to remind her that ‘there is no need to, there is no have to’, sending a message that it is not about the implications or the expectations but about the rally and the shot at hand.
Her dominant victory over the No 4 seed and reigning French Open champion shows how far Keys has progressed.
“I think I’m going to cry,” Keys said. “It means a lot and last year was really hard.
“I did everything that I could with my team to just really reset this off-season and focus on starting fresh and new, really just starting from zero and not worrying about last year.
“Wow, that’s gone well so far. I’m really proud of myself. So thankful to my team, my friends and my family for helping me through what was a really tough year last year.”
Keys was left devastated after she tested positive to Covid-19 on the eve of her scheduled flight to last year’s Australian Open, which marked the beginning of a rather forgettable year for the 26-year-old’s measure.
On Tuesday, the winners kept coming as her easy power dominated Krejcikova, striking her 11 aces against one of the world’s premier returners, and a Grand Slam doubles World No 1 before she became a singles champion.
Krejcikova struggled, putting her ice-filled towel not only around her neck on changeovers but on top of her head.
Down 2-5 in the opening set, she called for the trainer and was also attended to by a tournament doctor, who took her blood pressure and temperature.
Although her coach Ales Kartus was telling her from the stands that she should retire from the match, she persevered as the errors piled up.
Later, Krejcikova declined to explain what was troubling her.
“I have been struggling with something,” Krejcikova, who is still playing in the doubles draw, admitted. “Yes, it was happening, and I didn’t feel good.
“I just don’t want to talk about it, because I think Madison, she really deserves the win, and she really deserves to get the credit.”
Krejcikova, who also struggled with breathing and dizziness on a muggy night in New York last year in a tempestuous 4th-round upset over Garbiñe Muguruza at the US Open, said she was not experiencing the same issues on Tuesday.
“Today it was the heat that started to bother me after five games,” she said. “From there on, I just couldn’t put it together.
“Still, I didn’t want to end it up. I wanted to finish up. I wanted to try to do my best. I wasn’t really able to do that.”
Tuesday’s defeat means that Krejcikova cannot now displace Barty as World No 1 in next week’s rankings.
Keys, who is currently ranked 51, kept her aggressive play clean with her winner total outpacing her 21 unforced errors as she stormed to her win.
By contrast, Krejcikova’s 12 winners were overwhelmed by 28 unforced errors and last week’s Sydney finalist, who had won 38 of her last 47 matches, saw her serve broken 4 times by Keys on the day.
“I think I played a pretty solid match today,” Keys said in her post-match press conference. “Just so happy to be back in the semi-finals here for the first time in a long time.
“I think the biggest key is just being able to reel it back in and then refocus very quickly and catching yourself.
“I think that’s the thing that I’ve been just really focusing on the most, is acknowledging when I’m either not playing the right way, getting ahead of myself, anything, just stopping it once it’s a point or two or a game, versus all of a sudden you look up and it’s been three or four games.
“[I’m] really just trying to be a lot more measured and just playing within myself a little bit more, not necessarily trying to hit a winner on that ball, just constantly trying to set the point up to get to the net to try to finish it off on even the next ball.
“If it happens to be a winner, then it happens to be a winner.”
Keys and Krejcikova had many opportunities on return early in the match, but both of them were unable to capitalise on their first 6 break points apiece, which all came in the first 6 games.
Once Keys converted on her 7th, forcing a Krejcikova error wide to take a 4-2 lead, the unseeded American took control, ending the set with back-to-back aces 3 games later.
Krejcikova dropped her first 2 service games of the second, giving Keys a commanding 3-0, double-break lead.
Although the Czech clawed a break back, big returns by Keys extended her advantage again as she broke for 5-2, and the American eased to a service hold in the final game to notch another major semi-final and a date with Barty.