Despite all the advance hype that Amanda Anisimova could prove to be Ash Barty’s stumbling block, the World No 1 came through the encounter on Sunday evening with flying colours, calmly and methodically, to reach the Australian Open quarter-finals, where she will play Jessica Pegula, a surprise winner over Maria Sakkari, the 5th seed earlier in the day.
She's got an exceptional game that puts you under the pump right from the get-go. It was nice to be able to hold firm tonight, and bring the points back into my patterns more regularly, and big ones when it mattered most. She’s an incredible athlete and competitor. One of her best attributes is that she's able to turn up point after point after point. Ash Barty
Anisimova did break Barty’s serve, however, the first to crack her run of 63 straight service holds, but the top seed simply broke back, and carried on with her game plan to win, 6-4 6-3.
“It didn’t bother me too much,” Barty said, on dropping serve. “Honestly, I’m not counting how many games I hold in a row or not.
“The fact I was able to reset, break straight back, was really important, just to be able to reset myself, go again, and continue to do the right things.
“In that game Amanda saw a few second serves that she was able to punish, and she also had some really good returns off first serves.
“You tip your hat and you say, Too good, to your opponent when they come up with returns from the baseline, and move on pretty quickly, and continue to try and do the right things.”
It was certainly tighter than her previous 3 matches, but the amiable Aussie was happy enough with her performance.
“She’s got an exceptional game that puts you under the pump right from the get-go,” Barty said in her on-court interview. “It was nice to be able to hold firm tonight, and bring the points back into my patterns more regularly, and big ones when it mattered most.
“She’s an incredible athlete and competitor. One of her best attributes is that she’s able to turn up point after point after point.
“It’s just nice to see her back playing her best tennis. She’s a champion and she’s going to be in deep stages at a lot of majors,” Barty added of Anisimova, who was understandably devastated when her father died in 2019.
Anisimova, who has lost her first match of the 2022 campaign, having triumphed at Melbourne Summer Set 2, could not live with the rock-solid Barty as the Aussie used her wide repertoire to greater effect, coming through it all in an hour 14 minutes.
Barty is now within 3 matches of becoming the first Australian woman to win her home Grand Slam since Chris O’Neil in 1978.
She has not dropped a set this fortnight, or indeed a match this year, which is ominous for the rest of the field, including her next challenger Pegula.
Anisimova thwarted danger in the opening game, saving a break point, and the 20-year-old threatened Barty in the 4th game, but the top seed managed to wriggle out of that jam, forcing the American to strike long.
Barty drew first blood at 3-3, her all-around game on display, using an angled forehand return to drag Anisimova wide, before she finished with a backhand slice winner on the first point.
Another backhand slice winner made it 0-40, and Barty broke through when Anisimova’s forehand sailed long.
Agonisingly for the American, a second-serve backhand return rocketed long on another break chance in the next game, leading to the World No 60 to squat down and tap her racket on the court.
At times, Barty was outhit by bold drive volleys and down-the-line winners from Anisimova, while at others, she gave her younger opponent openings with a smattering of double-faults, 2 of which came consecutively, and uncharacteristic unforced errors, 17, which were outweighed by 23 winners.
She held firm, though, when it really mattered, producing a couple of moments of pure magic with those delightfully angled backhand slice winners to break Anisimova for the first time.
Her crafty variation on the slice paid dividends throughout, repeatedly tangling Anisimova up both tactically and technically.
Barty also raised her level to accelerate towards the finishing line of both sets, the first 3 of her 7 aces coming in her final 2 service games of the first.
In the second, Anisimova held 2 game points to hold for a 4-3 lead, only for Barty to reel off 12 of the next 14 points to snatch the win.
Anisimova will rue the 2 missed returns on Barty second serves when she held break point in the opener, and even when the 20-year-old captured a rare break for 2-0 in the second with a series of superb forehands, she was unable to take advantage as 3 backhand errors in the next game gifted the break back, and Barty resumed control from there.
The Australian’s first serve percentage may have wobbled at times, but they both concluded with 67 percent of their first serve points won, while Barty’s second delivery proved the most potent, 50 percent compared to Anisimova’s 38.
The American had rallied from a set down against Osaka, bending but not breaking as the Japanese applied early pressure, and she needed to repeat the feat to send the match to a decider.
She saved a break point after leading 40-0 on serve, which perhaps unsettled Barty but pleased her new coach Darren Cahill, who was even happier when Anisimova broke for 2-0.
Barty responded immediately, producing an ace to save another break point, and Anisimova later falling to the court in dismay when a forehand at deuce misfired with her opponent stranded.
There was more angst for Anisimova at 3-3 when she sent a simple-looking smash long at 40-15, which cost her dearly, as Barty broke for 4-3, and the American never recovered from the blow.
In terms of winners, Barty’s 23 offset 20 unforced errors, while Anisimova’s 20 could not outweigh her 34 miscues.
Barty’s next hurdle comes in the form of No 21 seed Jessica Pegula, who made the last 8 in Melbourne for the second year in a row with a straight-sets win over 5th-seeded Maria Sakkari from Greece, 7-6(0) 6-3.
“She’s able to hold the baseline really well,” said Barty of Pegula. ”Her swings are quite linear and she gets a racket behind the ball and swings through the path.
“The ball comes at you at a different trajectory, and her ability to absorb pace ,and then add to it when she wants to, is exceptional.
“It’s going to be a challenge for me to try and push her off that baseline, and make her uncomfortable, and feel like she has to create.
“But I know that she’s also going to be doing the exact same thing to me, and trying to make me uncomfortable.
“That’s the chess game that we play. You go out there and have fun with it, see who can execute better on the day, and that’s about all there is to it.”
Pegula made a surprise run to her first Grand Slam quarter-final in Melbourne last year as an unseeded player ranked World No 61 and, as a seed, she has now matched her 2021 result with a 1-hour 35-minute upset win over Sakkari, the World No 8.
“It was a little hot out there today, so I didn’t really want to kind of play a lot of long points,” said Pegula, after her win. “I thought I really had to step up and be aggressive when I had the chances to.
“Luckily I was able to capitalise on that pretty well today, and play a pretty clean match, I think.
“I know that she’s always going to fight and compete well,” added Pegula, who squandered 6 match points in her last meeting with Sakkari, in Miami last year. “I wasn’t really thinking about that [Miami] match.
“Obviously I know that I need to step up and take my chances. She did start to play better at the end. She started serving better.
“In that last game she made me earn it, which is what I thought would happen.”
Pegula had never beaten a Top 10 player until she upset Elina Svitolina to win her 4th-round match in Melbourne last year and, by the end of 2021, she had racked up 7 Top 10 wins.
Pegula earned her 8th on Sunday, denying Sakkari a chance to become the first Greek woman to reach the AO quarters.
On a searing Sunday afternoon in which the temperature topped 32 degrees, both players won roughly three-quarters of points behind their first service, but the difference proved to be second-serve effectiveness, with Pegula winning 64 percent of points behind her second delivery, while Sakkari could only prevail in 34 percent of her second-service points.
After twice falling behind a break in the opener, Sakkari fended off a set point on her serve at 5-3, eventually holding onto that game with an ace.
The Greek then levelled the match with a break for 5-5, and gritted out a hold for 6-5, putting the pressure firmly back on Pegula’s shoulders, but after slamming an ace to queue up the tiebreak, the American took complete charge with a powerful display to reach 6-0 in the breaker and garner 6 more set points.
Pegula only needed one, as she fired her 4th ace of the set to complete the breaker bagel after 56 minutes.
The 27-year-old had made an impressive 17 out of 21 returns as Sakkari hung on by a thread, a point from conceding the opening set on serve.
“I thought I returned really well. I really, from the start, wanted to put a lot of pressure on her serve,” the 21st seed said. “I think that worked really well.
“I know I’m not going to out-grind her. She’s an unbelievable athlete and way better at that than me so, I knew I had to take my chances, but you know, also be patient and play as smart as I could. Luckily I was able to do that.”
In the second set, Pegula needed to save 2 break points to hold for 2-1, but the American surged on from there, hitting an error-forcing forehand to break for a 3-1 lead.
That proved to be the only service break of the set, as Pegula methodically moved on to the win, ending the clash with another powerful forehand.
“That definitely was the best match I’ve played this year, you know, this tournament for sure,” Pegula said. “I’m glad I was able to bring it today, and keep my stats pretty well.
“I think it showed… I had a lot of really tough matches. I honestly was just really excited to play today.”
Pegula came away with 6 aces against 2 double-faults, 28 winners and 17 unforced errors, while Sakkari could only muster 4 aces to her 5 doubles, and her 20 winners could not outstrip her 25 miscues.