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Brisbane | Brady bounces Barty

Brisbane | Brady bounces Barty

Ash Barty’s 2020 season got off to a shaky start after she lost her opening singles match of the year at the Brisbane International in straight sets to American qualifier Jennifer Brady, 6-4 7-6(4).

You can call it rust or you can just call it a bit of execution. For me it was on those returning games. I probably had half a dozen second serve returns where I failed to make it into the court, in that first set in particular. And then Jen grew in confidence. You have to give credit where credit's due. Ashleigh Barty

For 24-year-old Brady, ranked 53 in the world, it was the biggest win of her career.

“I’m very happy to get the win,” she said during her on-court interview. “Ash is obviously a great player and a great person.

“It’s a little bit surreal. I’m super stoked and I’m shaking a little bit, but I really played well today.

“Hopefully I’ll be a main draw queen and won’t be playing too many more qualifying tournaments!” she laughed.

“It’s always good to get a few matches under your belt before the main draw, and I’m really happy with all my matches so far. Hopefully I can keep going.”

The World No 1 was uncharacteristically sloppy, hitting 26 unforced errors to her opponent’s 15, as she worked through her off-season rustiness against an opponent who was already playing her fifth match this week.

Barty pledged to donate her winnings from the Brisbane International singles and doubles competitions to the Australian Red Cross appeal.

In losing at the second round stage of the singles, Barty will claim $32,000 for the appeal, and could add up to $61,000 more should she claim the doubles prize.

“You can call it rust or you can just call it a bit of execution,” Barty said. “For me it was on those returning games.

“I had probably had half a dozen second serve returns where I failed to make it into the court, in that first set in particular.

“And then Jen grew in confidence. You have to give credit where credit’s due.

“But also for me that’s probably the only point of the match where I look at and I’m a little bit disappointed in myself and a little bit disappointed with the execution.”

Barty could not get near Brady’s serve, failing to earn a break point, with the American taking the chance she had in the first set.

The crowd came alive as Barty rallied during the second set tiebreak, but could not lift their home-town hero as she lost after 91 minutes of play.

In front of a healthy and expectant crowd on Pat Rafter Arena — the first time the main show court at the Brisbane Tennis Centre had been used for the WTA Brisbane International after the ATP Cup controversially had priority at the start of the week — Barty was beaten by the superior power of an American opponent she had not lost to in two prior meetings.

The opening game of the match was simplicity itself for Barty, but as the first set continued, it became apparent that the American would not just lie down and play the role of the sacrificial lamb for the massed supporters on the Australian’s home court.

Brady has already come through three rounds of qualifying on consecutive days, which she followed by dispatching former World No 1 Maria Sharapova in a come-from-behind three-set victory on Tuesday night.

The American showed no signs of a letdown despite the late finish against Sharapova, scoring the lone break of the opening set and serving it out on her second opportunity.

Barty responded with the fighting spirit that has become her signature in what has been a breakthrough 12 months for the Aussie, winning her maiden major title at Roland Garros last spring, and twice edged to within a game of a deciding set.

While Barty showed some delightful flashes throughout, the off-season rust was evident as the Australian hit 11 unforced errors in the first set, too often finding the net with her ground strokes.

It was a problem that plagued her as early as the warm-up, but was far from her only issue.

Brady’s crushing ground strokes forced Barty further and further back behind the baseline as the American dictated terms during the lengthier rallies.

The expectation around Barty’s home court was palpable, as every shot that hit the net was followed by an anguished groan of disappointment.

“Jen was in control of the match,” the Aussie assessed in her post-match press conference. “She was in the centre of the court, being the aggressor, and I think you have to give credit where credit’s due.

“Jen is, yes, she came through qualifying, but she’s got ranking that’s kind of well above, I think, what a lot of people give her credit for.

“She’s playing some exceptional tennis, so I certainly can’t take that away from her. She played a great match today and deserved to win.

“Of course I would love to go further. And I think, in my point of view, there’s no more expectation from however many thousand people were out there today to when I play anywhere else around the world.

“I think I’m just trying to do the best that I can and obviously try and put my best foot forward and try and play my best tennis, because I know that they have obviously come to see quality tennis regardless of who is on the court.

“They have taken the time out of their day to come and watch some quality tennis, and I know that Jen and I played a quality match today, regardless of the result.

“And I think now I look forward to kind of doubles here and then maybe going to Adelaide.”

Barty still has the semi-finals of the doubles tournament to look forward to in Brisbane, with Dutch partner Kiki Bertens, while next up for Brady is the 5th seed, Petra Kvitova, the two-time Wimbledon champion who took out Liudmila Samsonova, a Russian qualifier, with relative ease, 6-3 6-2.

Meanwhile, defending champion Karolina Pliskova made a triumphant return to Patrick Rafter Arena on Thursday, dispatching another hometown favourite Ajla Tomljanovic to reach the quarter-finals in three sets.

The two-time Brisbane champion got off to a winning start on Thursday, shaking off a second set hiccup to kick off her 2020 season with a 6-4 6-7(5) 6-1 win over the Aussie.

Afterwards, the World No 2 said she was relieved to have finally got on court, having arrived in Brisbane on 29 December in order to acclimatise.

“The conditions are just so different here, so no point of staying in Europe, really,” she pointed out. “I just wanted to be here a little bit before. It was maybe too much… I felt I’m here forever without really having a match.”

Pliskova was playing her first singles match of the season, having ended a solid 2019 at Shiseido WTA Finals Shenzhen, where she fell in the semi-finals to eventual champion Barty, and navigated through three tense sets against Tomljanovic to ultimately emerge victorious in just over two hours on Patrick Rafter Arena.

“There is not many tournaments which I won two times – actually only here in Brisbane, so I have to enjoy it,” Pliskova laughed. “And of course great memories, great matches I’ve played, always.”

Playing aggressive tennis off the return, Pliskova engineered a break point in the Aussie’s opening service game and eventually broke two games later.

Tomljanovic kept battling, navigating through another tricky serve game to level the set at 4 games apiece, but the No 2 seed was undaunted, trading powerful baseline blows to break straight back and saving a break point in the following game to serve out the opening set.

The second set went entirely with serve, with neither player facing a break point even as Pliskova twice served to stave off a decider.

Two points from a third set, the Czech ran off 4 straight points to force a tiebreak and although she scored the first mini-break, Tomljanovic steadied and reversed the trend as she won 6 of the next 7 points to put herself a point from levelling the match, doing so on her third opportunity.

Pliskova responded in emphatic fashion racing through the 3 three games of the final set in under 10 minutes and only improved from there, out-rallying the Aussie to earn a double break advantage.

She put away a strong backhand to bring up 2 match points on her own serve and while Tomljanovic saved the first with a backhand winner of her own, Pliskova would not be denied, making it over the finish line with an un-returnable serve.

In all, she struck 39 winners to just 13 unforced errors, including an impressive 12 aces; while Tomljanovic made 23 winners of her own but hit 18 unforced errors and could only muster just one break of Pliskova’s serve.

Standing between the defending champion and a return to the semi-finals is 2019 Dongfeng Motor Wuhan Open runner-up Alison Riske, who eased past Barbora Strycova, 6-3 6-4, on Wednesday.

Pliskova has won 7 out of 8 total meetings with the American, including two on hard courts last season, but their most recent encounter at the Rogers Cup in Toronto went the distance.

“I won, I think, the last or maybe all the matches we played, I don’t know,” Pliskova commented. “But everything was kind of close, there were some three-setters, some tiebreaks – we play a lot of tiebreaks, I think.

“But I think she really improved in the last year, so she really went up in the rankings. And she’s beating good players, so it’s not going to be easy. But I know how to beat her, so I just have to do my stuff and then we will see.”

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