Melbourne | Comeback Barty steps up as Watson falters
Australia’s Ash Barty came through a tough test under the glare of a full Rod Laver Arena in Melbourne on Tuesday night.
The great Aussie hope overcame Aryna Sabalenka, the talented 19-year old from Belarus, 6-7(2) 6-4 6-4, after two hours and five minutes of inspirational tennis that kept the crowd on the edge of their seats.
I think last year set me up perfectly for this kind of match. I probably should have closed out that first set, but I knew If I hung about long enough, I would give myself a chance. I’m very happy to get through that match and to have another chance on Thursday Ashleigh Barty
Barty’s steely determination eventually won over the scattergun teenager and, by the end, the sound was deafening as the enigmatic Australian No 1 pulled off the win with a clenched first and a quiet smile.
Sabalenka smacks every ball like a sledgehammer, often hitting her forehand, on average, eight kilometres faster than Serena Williams did last year so it was always going to be a game of contrasts, particularly in the decibel department.
The Belarusian has a scream not dissimilar to her fellow countrywoman and two-time Australian Open winner, Viktoria Azarenka, and the crowd took exception by mocking her.
Even Barty, who barely gives a yelp, turned to her box to say of her opponent: “She’s so loud.”
Despite her unhappiness with the screaming, Barty didn’t appear impressed with the crowd’s antics, which forced Sabalenka to pause before taking her next serve.
That the Aussie could muster a win from a set down was significant in itself since prior to this first round encounter, Barty had only won one match at Grand Slam level after she had lost the opening set.
While Barty was hit off the court in the opening tiebreak, she was able to get on top of her fiery opponent in the second by breaking Sabalenka in the first game, as the Belarusian’s screams grew ever louder.
Barty began finding every corner and every line on the court, her deft hands coming to the party.
Although Sabalenka broke back in the fourth game, courtesy of a Barty double fault, the Aussie’s self belief got her over the line and her tenacity pushed the match into a third and deciding set.
It became a battle of strength and precision, from which Barty prevailed to secure herself a second round berth, as the match truly spark into life.
Sabalenka was relentless in targeting the lines, whilst Barty combined exemplary defence with well-timed forays to the net.
A miraculous lob, back-pedalling towards the baseline, enabled Barty to hold for 1-1.
At 1-2 the 21-year-old was required to curl a sumptuous forehand passing shot down the line to remain in touch.
Those two winners seemed to crack Sabalenka’s resolve, with the bullet shots beginning to miss their mark.
A composed Barty stole the vital break at 3-2, roaring to victory following another sweetly struck ace.
“There were times in the match when I wasn’t going to have a say,” said Barty,.
“Once I got my slice going, I was able to dink a few in to gain more points. I knew what was coming, but I just had to worry about myself.”
“I think last year set me up perfectly for this kind of match,” added the Australian, who soared up the rankings in 2017.
“I probably should have closed out that first set, but I knew If I hung about long enough, I would give myself a chance.
“I’m very happy to get through that match and to have another chance on Thursday.”
The world No 17 was the only Australian winner on Day 2 at Melbourne Park, progressing to a tough second-round date with in-form Italian Camila Giorgi.
Agnieszka Radwanska also completed a stunning comeback over Krystina Pliskova, 2-6 6-3 6-2
The Pole headied into this year’s Australian Open with the longest active consecutive Grand Slam main draw appearance streak – 47-straight appearances.
She needed two hours to clinch her 34th Australian Open win in 45 matches after losing her serve in the opening game.
Pliskova, counting heavily on her own serve, delivered 14 aces, but Radwanska was the more consistent from the baseline, committing just 11 forehand errors to the Czech’s 25, and 5 unforced off the backhand side to her opponent’s 17.
Safely through, the No 26 seed now plays Lesia Tsurenko.
Mirjana Lucic-Baroni played her first match at the 1996 edition of the Australian Open and, 19 years later, scored another win to set a new record by winning through again.
She had already rolled back the years after her special first-round victory in 2017 preluded her reaching her first major semi-final since Wimbledon 1999.
After failing to convert a match point in the second set, she recovered to post an impressive 7-6(6) 5-7 6-2 win over America’s Shelby Rogers.
Next up she faces another emerging fan favourite, Aliaksandra Sasnovich, who defeated yet another American, Christina McHale.
The Belarusian won a staggering seven straight matches in Brisbane in her first tournament of the year with a pair of Top 20 victories.
As a result of her maiden Premier final Sasnovich moved up 35 spots to a new career-high of World No 53, smashing her previous best of World No 87.
While her boyfriend Dominic Thiem dismissed Guido Pella in straight sets, Kiki Mladenovic suffered her 15th consecutive loss since beating Tatjana Maria in Washington last August.
The No 104 Ana Bogdan upset the Frenchwoman, 6-3 6-2, and clinched her first ever Australian Open victory.
Mladenovic, penalised by 25 unforced errors in the opening set, struggled to find her game from the baseline, looking tentative.
Bogdan easily sealed her 13th Grand Slam win, qualifying included, that assured her the chance to play Yulia Putintseva to reach her maiden third round at a major.
The 23-year-old born in Moscow, who moved to Paris to train at the Mouratoglou Academy aged 14 before switching her representation to Kazakhstan six years ago, climbed to a career-high at No 27 last year.
Putintseva beat Heather Watson, 7-5 7-6, after 2 hours 16 minutes and hopes to equal her best result here, the third round reached in 2016.
For the British No 2, it was a disappointing loss and a downcast Watson admitted she had not played a smart match.
She was unable to join British compatriots Johanna Konta and Kyle Edmund in the second round in Melbourne, after squandering a set point in the second set tiebreak.
The 25-year-old said: “I definitely felt like the aggressor but my balls didn’t have enough on them.
“She did very well moving and retrieving a lot. I felt like I had finishing balls constantly and wasn’t able to finish the point. I just don’t feel that I played very well or very smart.”
Watson arrived in Melbourne full of confidence after a run to the semi-finals of the Hobart International but knew exactly what to expect from Putintseva, one of the feistiest players on tour.
The 23-year-old, ranked 14 places higher than Watson at 54 in the world, made the better start and secured an early break but the Brit fought back well to level at 4-4.
Watson, frustrated at the number of long rallies, could not find the first-strike tennis she was seeking and it was Putintseva who clinched the opening set.
Watson did up the anti at the start of the second, and was rewarded with a 3-0 lead, but Putintseva responded well, levelling at 4-4 in a reversal of the first set and then breaking to give herself a chance to serve for the match at 6-5.
Back came Watson, digging in to break back and force the tiebreak, and she held a set point to force a decider at 6-5, but she pulled a backhand wide and two more errors gave Putintseva the victory.
Watson now heads to the WTA tournament in St Petersburg before teaming up with Konta in Fed Cup duty in February.
“I’m feeling quite negative after the match today because I’m just really not happy with it, but I have to take positives and I’ve had a lot of matches at the beginning of the year and it’s good,” Watson said.
”First round at a Grand Slam is always so tough and I can’t just look at today, I have to look at the weeks before as well.”