Heather Watson’s campaign at the Western & Southern Open is over, following a gallant loss to World No 1 Ash Barty in Cincinnati on Wednesday, and she was in good company as several seeds tumbled out of the draw, including Aryna Sabalenka, Elina Svitolina and Iga Swiatek.
She’s qualified here, so played three matches already. It was always going to be an exceptionally tough match for me to find my groove and find my rhythm. There’s a little work to be done, but that’s OK. We get another opportunity tomorrow. Ash Barty
Barty shook off any rust she may have been experiencing since losing early at the Tokyo Olympics, as was pushed hard by the British qualifier before prevailing, 6-4 7-6(3).
“Heather’s an extremely tough opponent,” Barty said in her on-court interview. “It was always going to be an exceptionally tough match for me to find my groove and rhythm, and there’s a little bit of work to be done.
“It’s our career and our livelihood – but it’s just a game. Sometimes you have to find a way to enjoy the fight, enjoy the battle and it was certainly one of those matches today, when I had to dig deep.
“And I felt like when it really mattered, I was able to find some pretty good stuff.”
The Wimbledon champion was stretched at times by Watson’s sterling challenge, but showed signs of her brilliant best even despite serving up 8 double-faults in an uneven performance that lasted for an hour 46 minutes.
It took Barty to slip into another gear in the decisive second set tiebreak to set up another demanding last-16 encounter on Thursday with Victoria Azarenka, the 14th seed from Belarus, who beat American Alison Riske, 6-2 7-5.
Barty, who was left deeply frustrated by her shock loss in the draining heat of Tokyo to Spain’s Sara Sorribes Tormo, looked hungry on another hot afternoon as she opened up in brilliant fashion, racing into a 3-0 lead.
She was pegged back, though, after dishing up 5 double-faults in the space of 2 service games to help gift Watson a route back into the set.
The Aussie quickly regained a measure of control with a break to love, and eventually laboured towards taking the opening stanza, while Watson produced some gutsy tennis in repelling 3 set points before Barty hit a glorious forehand drive at the 4th time of asking.
29-year-old Watson, who is ranked 67, came through 3 three-setters to make it to round two, and she continued her fine resistance into the second set, saving break points in a couple of games and taking matters into a tiebreak.
The top seed, however, earned an immediate mini-break with a cracking forehand, her 29th winner, and dictated proceedings from there, hammering down her 9th ace to earn 5 match points, the 3rd of which she converted for a highly satisfactory return to tour action.
“She’s qualified here, so played three matches already,” Barty said in her on-court interview. “It was always going to be an exceptionally tough match for me to find my groove and find my rhythm.
“There’s a little work to be done, but that’s OK. We get another opportunity tomorrow.”
While most of the world’s top players jumped through all the hoops and over the daunting barriers created by the world pandemic a year ago, Barty stayed home, hunkering down in Australia and missing the reconstituted US Open and French Open while quietly planned her exit strategy.
The result is a five-month work still in progress, a sometimes excellent road adventure that has brought a Wimbledon title, the continued World No 1 ranking and homesickness.
Last month at the Tokyo Olympics, Australia came to Barty as one of the 478 Australian athletes competing in 30 sports.
“Yeah, it was a bit of a strange feeling,” Barty said on Monday in Cincy. “Being around so many other Aussies just created this incredible feeling of home and normalcy.
“I think to be able to spend time with other athletes and knowing how much time and effort they have put into their Olympic careers with that extra year on top of it.
“And for me to be able to see that created this real sense of togetherness, and we are all united. I think at Aussie headquarters in the Village, that was a really strong sense of that.”
Barty came away with the bronze medal in mixed doubles, a feat of which she is extremely proud.
Her bronze medal, appropriately in this difficult time, is sitting in quarantine in Australia, bourne there by one of the Olympic team physios, who is sitting out his mandatory two weeks and will drop it off with Barty’s parents, Josie and Robert, in Ipswich, Queensland.
“At the Village, it was really cool,” Barty said. “I loved the fact I could chuck my hat, my sunnies, and my mask on, and I felt like no one was going to recognise me. I think, unfortunately, a few of the athletes did.”
Truth be told, Barty was one of Australia’s most sought-after selfie subjects in the Olympic Village, and she was happy to comply.
Barty leads the head-to-head with Azarenka 2-1, with their most recent meeting, in Miami’s Round of 16, going to the Aussie in 3 sets.
Azarenka is the defending champion at the Western & Southern Open, having won the title when the event was played last year in New York and scoring her 7th straight match-win at the tournament with her straight sets win over Riske.
The Belarusian was down a break as late as 5-4 in the second set, but the former World No 1 broke Riske when she was serving for the set in that game and, all told, Azarenka wrapped up the final 4 games to set her battle with Barty.
Meanwhile, another former World No 1, Angelique Kerber’s fine run of form continued as she defeated 4th-seeded Elina Svitolina from the Ukraine, 7-5 2-6 6-4.
The German turned around her rivalry with Svitolina, who came into the meeting with a 9-5 lead in their head-to-head and had won her past 7 matches against Kerber, but she turned the tables on the Ukrainian after 2 hours and 9 minutes of play.
The 3-time Grand Slam champion has now won 12 of her past 13 matches, capturing her 13th title in Bad Homburg before a run to the Wimbledon semi-finals.
Kerber, who finished runner-up at Cincinnati in 2012 and 2016, matched Svitolina in service breaks, but her break-point conversion rate was more successful than the Ukrainian’s, with 6 for 11, while her opponent left 12 break points begging.
Kerber next takes on Jelena Ostapenko after the 2017 Roland Garros champion advanced to the Round of 16 when No 13 seed Jennifer Brady of the United States retired as the Latvian led 6-7(2), 5-4
Supreme serving from 11th-seeded Czech Petra Kvitova dispatched a dangerous opponent in Russia’s Veronika Kudermetova, 6-2 6-4.
The Russian’s excellent early-season singles form has been seen more on the doubles court in recent months, at Wimbledon where she was runner-up and an Olympic semi-finalist alongside Elena Vesnina, but she played her part in a high-quality contest against Kvitova.
Ill-timed double-faults, however, proved to be her downfall and although the World No 33 only committed 4, they came at inopportune moments, one at break point down at 2-3, and another at 30-30 on the penultimate point of the first set, while Kvitova rattled through a series of dominant holds thanks to 10 aces.
Kudermetova found a spell of scintillating form to peg Kvitova back from 4-1 to 4-4 in the second set, during which both conjured remarkable lobs at full stretch, but the Czech steadied herself and, at 5-4, unleashed a barrage of scorching returns, finding a clean off backhand winner to seal her second match point.
Kvitova’s next opponent is not the expected 6th seed, Iga Swiatek from Poland, but her conquerer Ons Jabeur after the Tunisian scored an significant upset, 6-3 6-3.
Elsewhere, Spain’s Garbiñe Muguruza, the 8th seed, booked her appointment with No 9 Barbora Krejcikova from the Czech Republic, having defeated French qualifier Caroline Garcia, 6-4 6-3.
It will be a meeting between the 2016 French Open champion and this year’s winner in Paris after Krejcikova bested Dayana Yastremska from Ukraine, 6-1 7-6 (5).