Ash Barty is getting into her stride, now safely through to the semi-finals of the singles and the final of the doubles at the Adelaide International on Friday, while defending champion Iga Swiatek dropped her first set in 7 matches to Victoria Azarenka but prevailed.
I felt pretty good today. I was able to look after my service games pretty well, and it was a lot of fun playing out here, and getting more court time. Looking at these last two matches, there's still work to do. We got back to the drawing board and continue to try and do all of the right things, but it’s been a really solid start, and we’re happy with the foundation we’ve set to set the year off. Ash Barty
The World No 1 was in dominant form as she delivered a comfortable 6-3 6-4 win in just 68 minutes over American Sofia Kenin, the 2020 Australian Open champion who was playing her first tournament since Wimbledon last year.
Kenin, a former World No 4, took the second half of the year off after she tested positive for COVID and had endured a run of very poor results.
Barty, who won Adelaide that same year that Kenin upset her in AO semi-final en route to her first major title, dominated from the start, and showed no signs of the rust that had dogged her win over American teenager Coco Gauff on Wednesday.
On this day Kenin struggled with her serve, while her top-seeded opponent was nearly flawless in all departments, particularly on serve as she produced 17 aces and won 31 of her 32 first delivery points.
Barty notched up the crucial break midway through the opening set, and then carried that momentum through to the second, wrapping up the win in just over an hour without facing a single break point herself.
“I felt pretty good today,” she said. “I was able to look after my service games pretty well, and it was a lot of fun playing out here, and getting more court time.
“Looking at these last two matches, there’s still work to do.
“We got back to the drawing board and continue to try and do all of the right things, but it’s been a really solid start, and we’re happy with the foundation we’ve set to set the year off.”
In fact Barty was in superb form as she saw off the World No 12 in just 68 minutes of quality tennis.
When on song, Barty’s serve is always a threat and despite the slow, cool conditions in Adelaide, she racked up her 17 aces, a career best, against just 2 double-faults.
Enjoying her 74th consecutive week at the top of the WTA singles rankings, and her 109th week at No 1 overall, Barty finished with an impeccable 97 percent success rate on first-serve.
The Queenslander has spent time in the pre-season working on her accuracy and velocity and, if those numbers are replicated at Melbourne Park, Barty will be mighty hard to beat.
The 25-year-old Aussie did not give Kenin any opportunities to break, while the American’s serve was not nearly as effective and, although she was only broken once in each set, she struggled to hold throughout, serving just 2 aces with no double-faults to her name.
The American’s chances were also not helped by the 26 unforced errors she made, many coming from her forehand side.
Barty, who has not played a tournament since taking a break after last September’s US Open, has been finding her way in Adelaide, coming from behind to see off Gauff in 3 sets in the second round, and then facing Kenin in the quarter-finals.
The World No 1 would face either Victoria Azarenka or Iga Swiatek next, due to play the night match, who have 3 Grand Slam titles between them, so the task ahead of Barty would get no easier.
“But that’s what you want,” Barty said. “It’s nice to be out here and tested right from the start and know you have to bring your very best level.”
As it happened, Swiatek took another step towards the first title defence of her career with a 6-3 2-6 6-1 over Azarenka, taking an hour and 57 minutes to reach the semi-finals.
Her only prior encounter with the Belarusian had been a straight set loss at the 2020 US Open, when she was 19 years old and ranked 53 in the world, but the Pole has since established herself firmly at the top of the game, and the bulk of their Adelaide re-match was a high quality contest in which both sought to impose their weightiest hitting on the other.
“Winning against such an experienced player is still pretty new for me,” she said after the match. “That was my third match where I actually could show what I practiced during pre-season.
“That’s really satisfying because I had this problem last year where I was practicing really great and I felt like I could do more on matches.
“This time it’s different. It’s actually going my way, so I’m pretty happy about that.”
Azarenka, a former World No 1 but now ranked at 27, is the first to take a set off Swiatek in Adelaide, but the 20-year-old eventually pulled away in the decider as the Belarusian’s movement became visibly hampered, and the Pole maintains her 7-match winning streak in the South Australian capital.
A right leg injury forced Azarenka to later withdraw from the doubles, handing No 3 seeds Darija Jurak Schreiber & Andreja Klepac a walkover into the final.
Azarenka posted 22 winners to 26 unforced errors, but 10 of the former and just 4 of the latter came in a clean and focused second set in which she seized momentum by advancing to the net at every given opportunity.
Her overhead was in fine fettle, and her famed return was at its best as she broke Swiatek for the set with a quartet of booming responses.
Swiatek tallied 27 winners to 28 unforced errors overall, and particularly notable was her balanced game.
The World No 9’s heavy forehand was in electrifying shape from the get-go, but Swiatek finished the match with 17 backhand winners to 10 from the forehand, with a series of sharply angled passes off the former wing drawing gasps from an enthralled crowd.
First-serve percentage proved crucial in the first two sets, with Swiatek’s falling from 67% to 50%, while Azarenka’s rose from 53% to 68%.
In the decider, Swiatek’s numbers recovered to 68% but Azarenka, who was visibly limping as she fell behind 4-0, fell back to 53%.
“Basically my main tactic was the same as in previous match,” added Swiatek. “I want to be the first one to attack, and to play that faster ball that’s going to give me opportunity to go forward.
“Basically I did that pretty well, but I felt like in the second set I backed out a little bit, so that was my mistake. She used that. I knew she’s going to do that.
“Basically I felt the same way when I was playing Simona [Halep] last year Australian Open. She just used every opportunity to come back to the match.
“I knew in third set I need to start the same way [as in] the first set. I think it was pretty easy, just a matter of who is going to attack first, and who is going to have more time to go forward.”
A popcorn clash between the 2019 and 2020 Roland Garros champions is on the cards for Saturday as Swiatek takes on top seed Barty for a place in the final.
Like the Azarenka contest, it is another rematch for Swiatek against a major champion, who triumphed in their only prior meeting when the Aussie defeated her 7-5 6-4 in the 3rd round of Rome last year.
In the bottom half of the draw, 7th seed Elena Rybakina from Kazakhstan will face Japan’s Misaki Doi for a spot in the Adelaide final, after they each won 3-set quarter-final battles.
Currently ranked at a career-high 14, Rybakina pulled off a come-back win over American Shelby Rogers, 3-6 6-3 6-2, taking exactly 2 hours to advance.
Rogers, who knocked out 6th seed Maria Sakkari in the previous round of the WTA 500 event, raced 4-1 ahead before closing out a strong opening set, but Rybakina got the only break in the second, and carried that lead to force a decider.
The Kazakh won 90% of her first serve points in the final set, and sent down 5 aces en route to closing out the win.
“My serve helped a lot [turning the match around],” Rybakina said. “There were many ups and downs, I was rushing a lot. I tried to focus on every point, rally a bit more. It worked out.”
Rybakina broke the Rogers serve 3 times, while only losing her own serve just the once.
“I’m happy more that maybe I’m not playing my best now, but I’m still able to win the matches,” Rybakina said in her post-match press conference. “I played two matches [that went] three sets, not easy ones.
“I’m just happy I’m moving more in the draw and I’m playing more matches. In the end I think it’s going to help me to feel more confidence.”
Doi’s victory was even more dramatic as the 30-year-old, who peaked at 30 in the rankings in 2016, saved 2 match points before beating Slovenia’s Kaja Juvan, 6-3 4-6 7-6(5), in 2 hours and 48 minutes.
Juvan held her 2 match points on Doi’s serve at 5-6 in the 3rd set, but the Japanese got out of that jam to line up the decisive tiebreak in which she won 4 points in a row to get to triple match point at 6-3 and, although the Slovak saved the first two on Doi’s serve, the left-hander cranked a forehand winner on her third chance to seal the victory.