World No 1 Ash Barty’s Australian Open party came to an end in the quarter-finals when she let slip her grip on her match against Karolina Muchova on Wednesday and lost, 1-6 6-3 6-2, on Rod Laver Arena.
It's heartbreaking, of course. But will it deter me, will it ruin the fact we've had a really successful start to our season? Absolutely not. The sun will come up tomorrow. We go about our work again. You're either winning or you're learning. I think today is a massive learning curve for me. Ash Barty
The 24-year-old Czech will face US Open semi-finalist Jennifer Brady on Thursday, with the winner set to make her maiden major final in Melbourne.
Cruising towards a semi-final berth, having won the first set with the loss of just one game and breaking to lead 2-1 in the second, Barty allowed Muchova’s 10 minute medical timeout to wrestle the momentum away from her.
“I felt like I was in control of the match,” Barty said. “I knew how I wanted to go about it, just lost my way a bit.”
Later she refused to criticise her opponent’s decision to take a time-out, and admitted that it ‘should not be a massive turning point’.
Muchova said after the match that she had called for the trainer because she felt a little dizzy.
“I started to feel a bit lost at the end of the first set,” the Czech said in her on-court interview afterwards. “My head was spinning so I took a break and it helped me.
“I tried to get back and play a bit faster and it worked well.
“They checked my pressure, I was a bit lost and spinning. They cooled me down with ice and it helped me.”
Muchova, duly refreshed, turned the match around as she won of the 5 of the next 6 games to take the match into a decider where she broke in games 1 and 7 to get over the finish line.
“I don’t write the rules,” Barty said later. “I don’t write the rules. I abide by them. All of us players, we abide by the rules that are written.
“It’s not my place to comment, here, whether she had an injury or not. That’s the physios and the doctors.
“Obviously that she’s taken her medical time-out meant that there was something wrong. She was within the rules, within the guidelines to take that time.”
“If she wasn’t within the rules, the physios and the doctors would have said so.
“From my point of view, I’ve played a lot of matches where there have been medical time-outs. I’ve taken medical time-outs myself before, so that shouldn’t be a massive turning point in the match.
“I was disappointed that I let that become a turning point. I’m experienced enough now to be able to deal with that.”
Muchova, seeded 25, looked out of sorts in a first set, which lasted just 24 minutes as the home favourite kept a clean sheet, striking 6 winners to just 6 unforced errors, while the Czech hit 1 winner to 16 unforced errors and served at 44 percent.
Down a break at 2-1 in the second, Muchova took her medical time-out after receiving a visit from the physio and the doctor, who checked her vitals and worked to cool her down off the court.
When play resumed, Barty struggled to regain her rhythm and Muchova broke her for the first time to get back on serve at 2-2.
She then forced the Aussie to save break points at 3-2 to hold, which Barty did by firing her 3rd ace of the match to get to deuce, and then saved a second with a well-constructed point to earn a forehand miss.
Looking to shorten rallies, Muchova stepped up her aggressive game-plan and her net play flourished as she began to flatten out her forehand to get Barty into a more defensive mode.
Again Muchova put Barty’s serve under pressure at 3-4, and while the top seed did well to save another pair of break points, she double-faulted at deuce and then misfired on a short forehand to hand the Czech the break.
Three straight errors from the Barty racket then yielded the set to Muchova, 6-3.
“I would have liked to have just been a little bit sharper the next game,” Barty admitted, when asked about the pause in play. “Started well with the first point, just made a couple loose errors in that game.
“I think for the rest of the set, that was the story. Probably pressed a little bit trying to be overly aggressive.
“Had some break points, I think it was that 3-All, that was probably a bit of a critical game in the momentum there for the second set.”
The lengthy time-out proved the catalyst for the Czech to wrestle back momentum and, after she levelled, it was Barty who lost her radar and a catalogue of unforced errors saw hopes of a maiden AO victory evaporate.
Muchova remained the steadier player down the stretch, playing aggressively and taking her chances, and she was rewarded accordingly.
From 2-2, Muchova reeled off the final 4 games, including a gutsy close in the final game to save 3 break points to close the door on Barty’s bid for a home Grand Slam.
For Muchova her remarkable tournament continues with Karolina Pliskova and Elise Mertens already dispatched, but this victory topped the lot and sealed her first ever appearance at the last four of major.
“I actually have one memory from here, when I was a kid and got my first notebook,” Muchova told reporters after the win. “I put it as a wallpaper, Rod Laver, the stadium.
“I was just, like, I hope one day it would be nice to play there or to look at the arena or whatever.
“Now I just won a match and make it to semi-finals. It’s amazing.”
Muchova has yet to lose a match in 2021, extending her record to 8-0 after her first career win over a World No 1.
“It’s actually not a bug,” Muchova said, when asked about her post-match camera lens doodle. “But everyone thinks it’s a bug. I’m not really a good drawer.
“I don’t have my coach, half of the team actually, I have them all home in Czech.
“We have a WhatsApp group. This is the picture of our WhatsApp group. It’s an African sign, because it was not an easy start for us here.
“It means heartiness and toughness. It’s called Wawa Aba and I draw it to tell them hi back to Czech.”
Against Barty, Muchova won 12 of the final 15 games to add her name to the Czech Republic’s deep bench of Grand Slam semi-finalists.
“I think I will have to bring my A-game to play with [Brady] because she is really playing amazing matches, having a good season, even the last season so far,” Muchova reflected.
“I look forward to that one. I will try to play my best.”
For Barty, after a brilliant Australian summer campaign following almost a year away from the game, it was a disappointment but not a disaster.
“It’s heartbreaking, of course,” Barty said. “But will it deter me, will it ruin the fact we’ve had a really successful start to our season? Absolutely not.
“The sun will come up tomorrow. We go about our work again. You’re either winning or you’re learning.
“I think today is a massive learning curve for me.”
Barty was unbeaten in 8 matches so far this season, winning the WTA Yarra Valley Classic on the eve of the year’s first Grand Slam tournament, and the high level she attained so quickly was impressive.
She dismissed concerns there might be rust in her game after having not played competitively since February last year, and did not drop a set in her run to the AO quarters.
While acknowledging her disappointment, the 24-year-old sees positive aspects in what has been an impactful return to the pro tour.
“Tough one today, without a doubt,” she admitted. “I would have loved to have done a little bit better.”