World No 1 Ash Barty breezed into the 3rd round of the Australian Open on Wednesday, sweeping aside Polona Hercog, 6-1 6-4, with little heed of the high winds battering Melbourne Park.
Honestly, there are so many bigger things going on in Australia right now. I don’t think anyone could care less if an Aussie wins it or not. First and foremost, it’s about the safety and the well-being of Aussies all across the nation, of wildlife, everything. I’d prioritise the safety and kind of rebuilding parts of our nation that have been destroyed over a tennis match any day of the week. Ash Barty
After choking smoke from recent bushfires and torrential rains, the swirling wind presented a new challenge to players, but nothing the Australian weather could throw at her was about to put Barty off her stride as she continued her quest to become the first home-grown champion at the Australian Open since Chris O’Neil at Kooyong in 1978.
Raising her racket to applaud a standing ovation, Barty paid special tribute to her team, her family and the yellow Vegemite-themed Barty Army in the stands.
“Obviously today was very special,” Barty told her former doubles partner Casey Dellacqua. “It was a clean match, really happy to get out of that one.
“Polona has the ability to hit you off the court so … it was about me making as many balls as I could and I was able to save a few break points in the second set as well.
“I love those – I should say Bartymite anyway [the Barty Army] – obviously my team is massive … it’s nice to have everyone here.”
The French Open champion had given her fans a scare by losing the first set of her opening match on Monday, but there was no repeat on Day 3 of the championships as Barty raced through the first set in 24 minutes.
“The wind was a massive factor today, changed end to end dramatically,” the 24-year-old told reporters after her second success on Rod Laver Arena.
“It was important for me to get a good start, and I was able to do that.”
Barty had been wary of the Slovenian, who wore a skull on her black visor to match the one tattooed on her arm, and her caution was vindicated in the second set when Hercog attacked her serve.
The top seed, however, saved all 6 break points she faced, including a couple in her final service game, and sealed the victory when Hercog was unable to keep a backhand return in the court.
“Obviously nice to be able to get out of those. In those points, my structure of points was a lot better,” she added.
“I probably should have done those earlier in the service games.”
The World No 1 next faces 29th seed Elena Rybakina of Kazakhstan, who was the other WTA title winner along with Barty in the final week of warm-ups for Melbourne Park when she won in Hobart.
Rybakina defeated Belgium’s Greet Minnen, 6-3 6-4.
“I think for me it’s about doing what I do best regardless of whether it’s a first round, third round, or a final,” said Barty.
“It doesn’t really matter for me what round it is. I’m still going out there trying to do the same thing essentially.”
Barty has earned plaudits for her level-headed attitude throughout her meteoric rise to the top and she illustrated it once again when asked whether an Australian champion would be fitting after the bushfire crisis.
“Honestly, there are so many bigger things going on in Australia right now. I don’t think anyone could care less if an Aussie wins it or not,” she said.
“First and foremost, it’s about the safety and the well-being of Aussies all across the nation, of wildlife, everything.
“I’d prioritise the safety and kind of rebuilding parts of our nation that have been destroyed over a tennis match any day of the week.”
In Barty’s quarter, Julia Goerges battled past Petra Martic, the No 13 seed, eventually upsetting the Croat, 4-6 6-3 7-5, and will next face another seed, American Alison Riske (18), in round 3, who dispatched Zhu Lin from China, 6-3 6-1.
Defending champion Naomi Osaka overcame a 2nd-set wobble against Zheng Saisai to advance on Margaret Court Arena where the No 3 seed was twice down a service break before turning on a 4-game barrage to progress, 6-2 6-4, in 80 minutes.
“Uhm… I guess winning?” Osaka answered, on the highlight of the match for her. “I got fired up when she got up 4-2 and people started clapping more.”
Because they were clapping for her or her opponent?
“For the drama,” she replied.
“Yeah, I just wanted to fight. I’ve been in this position on this court before. I didn’t want to go three sets.”
Osaka reiterated that she is more relaxed here than at her maiden major title defence at Flushing Meadows.
“I think I got all that out at the US Open,” she said post match.
Zheng, China’s No 2, coming off a career-high ranking and maiden singles title in 2019, won their last meeting but Osaka’s greater firepower and shot options kept her in front on this day.
The bespectacled Zheng wasn’t going to overpower Osaka and struggled to keep the ball out of her hitting zone, trying to get to the net, slicing from both wings and counter-attacking, but the Japanese merely lifted her game with the threat despite frustrations with the wind.
She briefly lost her cool mid-match, hurling and kicking her racket when she gave up a break in the 2nd set in the blustery conditions.
“That’s how I dealt with my frustration,” Osaka explained after the tense clash with a conservative opponent.
“It’s really tough because you start thinking — she’s not hitting winners.
“I definitely got very frustrated in the second set and it’s something that I knew would happen.”
22-year-old Osaka appears in trimmer physical condition than a year ago, when she took the title in a high-calibre final over Petra Kvitova and became the first Asian to ascend to No 1.
Osaka set up a headline rematch with Coco Gauff, in another echo of the US Open where their third-round clash was a blowout to the defending champion but was highlighted by the Japanese’s insistence that the 15-year-old join her for the post-match interview.
Gauff clawed her way back from a set down to beat the experienced Sorana Cirstea, 4-6 6-3 7-5, rallying from a set down, and 3-0 down in the decider, for her latest escape.
“I was just trying to stay calm mostly and stay positive. I’ve always believed that I can come back regardless of the score,” she reflected on her latest success.
“I think 0-30, 0-3 – I think it was 0-30 – that’s when I think I kind of changed everything and decided to be more aggressive.
“The whole match I knew I needed to be more aggressive. I guess I finally decided to do that even though I wish I decided earlier. That’s okay.
“I felt the momentum changing. I knew I had to keep pressing.”
After being broken in the 7th game of the opener, Gauff rebounded by breaking the Romanian in her first service game of the 2nd set, and rode the advantage all the way through to the decider.
Other seeds safely through to round 3 on Wednesday included Petra Kvitova (7), Sofia Kenin (14), Maria Sakkari (22) and Ekaterina Alexandrova (25); while Britain’s Heather Watson pulled off an impressive win of Kristyna Pliskova, the left-handed twin of the World No 2 Karolina, 4-6 6-3 6-1, to reach round 2.