Melbourne | Brilliant Barty sees off Sharapova
Ashleigh Barty took out Maria Sharapova to become the first Australian woman to reach the quarter-finals at the Australian Open for a decade.
I know that I can match it with the best, and when I execute I know that I can. This is unreal – playing on this beautiful court in front of a packed house, there's nothing better Ashleigh Barty
After dropping the first set, 15th seed Barty scored a thrilling 4-6 6-1 6-4 victory, capped by a dramatic final game, at Rod Laver Arena on Sunday afternoon to become just the fourth Australian female quarter-finalist at Melbourne Park, and the first since Jelena Dokic made a run to the last eight in 2009.
Sharapova was looking to follow up her big win over defending champion Caroline Wozniacki but lost 9 games in a row to trail 4-0 in the deciding set when her attempts at a comeback fell just short.
Barty served out her victory with an ace on her 4th match point in front of a raucous crowd on the RLA and will face Petra Kvitova in her first singles quarter-final at a Grand Slam.
“Maria was never going to go away,” said Barty, who spent more than a year away from the game between 2014 and 2016, including a spell playing professional cricket.
“She’s a proven champion. She will fight until the last point. I was doing all the right things but I’m very happy to come through in the end.”
It was highly anticipated encounter, pitting a superstar against a player who is making an increasing impact on the international stage.
Barty was expected to rise to a new career-high of No 14 regardless of the outcome on Sunday, and higher still if she could take out Sharapova.
The contrast in styles made for a cracker, with two players who approach the game quite differently, one towering at 188cm tall, extremely vocal on court and belting the ball with flat, almost metronomic power and the other almost nine inches shorter, and noiselessly executing an array of spins, angles, lengths and shape on her shots.
It was that variation that brought up a break point for Barty in the 8th game, after the Aussie worked the ball around and ended the rally with a searing forehand winner.
Yet she couldn’t convert that opportunity, or a second, and Sharapova escaped with a hold to level at 4-4.
It formed part of a three-game run for Sharapova, who suddenly looked to have figured Barty out.
When the Queenslander went hard with her forehand into Sharapova’s forehand, the Russian fired it back with interest, and when Barty knifed her slice backhand, Sharapova simply got down low and rolled it back deep.
The Russian pocketed the first set, but Barty stopped the run of games with a much-needed hold to open the second set.
It was the start of a stunning turn-around for the Australian, just when it felt like Barty was barely hanging on against the relentless Sharapova.
An untimely double fault at 30-30 in the fourth game by the Russian, followed by a limp backhand into the net, gave the Aussie a break and a 3-1 lead.
Barty streaked through 9 straight games as Sharapova’s game went completely awry.
Leading 4-0 in the final set, Barty tightened slightly at just the moment the Russian stopped missing and rediscovered her intensity.
Suddenly she had closed the gap to 3-4, and looked set to level scores when she went up 15-40 in the 8th game, seeking to get on top, but Barty, impressively, saved both of those break points before firing a huge serve en route to a hold for 5-3.
Another challenge was to come from the gritty Sharapova, who held in the 9th game to force Barty to serve it out.
Rod Laver Arena erupted when they thought Barty had slotted an ace on match point, but it was called out and, once the din quietened, Barty double faulted.
Another match point came and went, before the Australian finally clinched victory with an ace.
“I gave myself opportunities in the third set in a lot of games and just couldn’t take it. Just had to take a deep breath and trust the work that I’ve done with my team,” Barty said.
“Go up and hit my spots, and whatever happens, happens.”
Next up for Barty is two-time Wimbledon champion Petra Kvitova, who ended the run of 17-year-old Amanda Anisimova 6-2 6-1.
“She [Sharapova] is an absolute champion – she was never going to go away. So I knew that I just had to keep chipping away,” Barty added.
“I know that I can match it with the best, and when I execute I know that I can.
“This is unreal – playing on this beautiful court in front of a packed house, there’s nothing better.”
Later, Sharapova praised Barty in a sometimes frosty press conference in which she declined to answer questions about being booed by the crowd after taking a long toilet break and whether she is being affected by not being able to take Meldonium, the substance for which she served a 15-month doping ban.
“I thought she played a really great match, and I still had my chances, which I didn’t take,” said Sharapova. “I definitely had a letdown for many games straight, gave her that confidence.”
The Russian is struggling with ongoing shoulder pain but insisted she still believes she can add to her five Grand Slam titles.
“I think it would be tough for me to be doing all the work and putting in all the effort if I didn’t really believe that,” she said. “I think I’d be kidding myself.”
Barty and Kvitova played each other a week ago in the final of the Sydney International, with the Czech edging a very tight match in a third set tiebreak.
“It’s exciting that I get to have another chance at Petra straightaway,” Barty said.
“Sitting down with my team late last year, it was one of the goals we set out that we wanted to go deep into slams. It’s amazing that it’s happened in Australia.
“I have given myself the opportunity to play in front of the best crowd in the world on one of the best courts in the world and in my home slam. There is absolutely nothing better.”
Kvitova is no stranger to the latter stages of majors, of course, but this is the furthest she has been in Melbourne since 2012.
It is only two years since she feared she might never play again after being stabbed in her playing hand by an intruder in her home, and four and a half years since she won her second Wimbledon title.
“I’m kind of a different person,” she said. “I do have a different mindset than I had those years when I won.
“I’m just here to enjoy the tennis. That’s really important not to be really stressed about it. It’s great to be in the quarter-finals, but I know how difficult it is to win a grand slam.”
Jiri Vanek, who had just started coaching Kvitova when the stabbing happened, causing serious damage to the nerves and tendons in her fingers, said: “I don’t want to say it’s miracle, but for us it’s just amazing.
“She was so strong mentally, and she show us, she tells us, ‘Don’t worry, guys, I will come back and I will be strong. And maybe this thing can help me in the future’.
“We just followed her and now we try to give her back her positive attitude.”
After a year in the Grand Slam wilderness, Kvitova has returned to the limelight, thrashing of American teenager Amanda Anisimova in 59 minutes to storm into the Australian Open quarter-finals on Sunday.
The two-time Wimbledon champion had a barren 2018 season, failing to make it beyond the third round at all four majors, but the 28-year-old Czech has started the new year with a bang, and is shaping up as a genuine title threat at Melbourne Park.
“I’m serving pretty well and I’m moving well, as well,” Kvitova told reporters, having avenged her straight sets defeat to 17-year-old Anisimova at Indian Wells last year
“Sometimes when I’m nervous, I’m quite tight and nothing is really working, but this time I feel good.”
The left-hander’s confidence was on show and her power game devastating in the early match at a sunbathed Rod Laver Arena as she ended the American teen’s run in less than an hour and booked her first quarter-final appearance in Melbourne since her run to the 2012 semi-finals and first at a Grand Slam since the 2017 US Open.
Arguably the biggest shock of the tournament took place on Margaret Court Arena, where 25-year-old American Danielle Collins, who had never won a Grand Slam match before arriving in Australia, knocked out second seed Angelique Kerber, 6-0 6-2, in just 56 minutes.
“It was completely not my day,” said Kerber. “But credit to her, she played a good match.”