With all the hype surrounding American challengers headlined by Serena Williams at the US Open, World No 2 Ashleigh Barty is flying under the radar, and that’s exactly how the Australian likes it as she continues her quiet way through the bottom of the women’s draw, advancing to the 4th round with a solid victory over Maria Sakkari of Greece, 7-5 6-3.
I was really happy to be able to finish off both of those sets today." Ashleigh Barty
Her friend was a potentially tricky opponent for Barty since the two met in the quarter-final just 2 weeks ago in Cincinnati, and the Greek extended her to a decisive set, whilst Sakkari also defeated the Aussie with relative ease at Indian Wells last year.
The French Open champion, however, seems to focus better at the majors and took an hour and 26 minutes to see off Sakkari in the 2nd match on Louis Armstrong Stadium on Friday.
“I think overall today there were parts of the match I was really happy with,” Barty said during her post-match press conference.
“I feel like a few of the things that I’ve been lacking over the last month kind of came together a little bit today.
“I felt like I served a lot better, controlled the ball off the first strike more often than not. In the bigger moments, I felt like there was some better stuff there.”
The Australian made her debut in the Last 16 a Grand Slam here last year, losing to Karolina Pliskova, but is the front runner to return to the World No 1 spot after the tournament, with Naomi Osaka needing to defend her title and Pliskova requiring at least a semi-final to overtake Barty.
The 23-year-old is now the only player to have reached the second week of every major in 2019.
“That’s what we aim for, it’s what we strive to do, is to try and do the best we can every tournament,” said Barty.
“Particularly at Slams, to make that a bit of a focus point, to try to be ready, to try and make sure that I’m giving myself the best chance to go deep in the Slams.
“Really happy to be into another second week.”
Despite Barty’s 3-1 head-to-head lead, a narrowly contested encounter was expected, and both players relentlessly probed each other’s games from the get-go, attempting to manoeuvre the ball into awkward positions, and ultimately in a battle between the Australian’s biting slice and the Greek’s heavy topspin, it was the former that won out.
Barty found that slicing to the Sakkari forehand in particular frequently drew a mistake, as the Greek racked up 25 unforced errors to only 7 winners in the first set, while her point construction held more imagination.
She was also more effective on serve with which she tallied 5 aces to Sakkari’s none.
As a result, Barty captured the first break in the 3rd game, and although a rare volley error, her only one of the set, handed the Rabat champion the break back for 4-4, more errant forehands from Sakkari enabled the 2nd seed to take the final 2 games of the opening act from 5-5.
Both players continued to carve out opportunities on each other’s serves into the second but, once again, Barty proved more efficient at taking them, converting 3 of her 6 break point opportunities over the course of the match, compared Sakkari’s 1 of 4.
Having saved a break point in the 4th game with her 7th of 11 aces for the day, Barty struck in the next game, an excellent angled pass bringing up a chance that was promptly taken as Sakkari’s forehand went awry once more.
The Australian Open quarter-finalist increased her first serve percentage from 41% to 54% in the second set, and this greater comfort behind her delivery saw her consolidate her lead comfortably.
Serving to stay in the match, Sakkari fell away rather limply, committing 4 straight unforced errors to take her total to 38, and sealing her 7th loss in 7 Grand Slam 3rd round appearances, a record among active players.
“Maria is an incredible competitor and great mover around the court,” Barty said. “She really brings her best stuff when she’s on the move, so it was important for me to try and dictate without going into her patterns too much.
“It’s tricky to play a friend, it always is,” Barty added. “I was really happy to be able to finish off both of those sets today.”
Barty now has the opportunity to make her 3rd major quarter-final of the season against No 18 seed Wang Qiang of China, who defeated Frenchwoman Fiona Ferro in straight sets on Friday.
“Obviously [Wang is a] very tough competitor, moves extremely well,” Barty stated. “When the ball is in her strike zone, she can go both ways, cross and line off both wings.
“I think it’s going to be an incredibly physical match, a match where I need to make sure that I serve well and bring variety in as much as I can.”
The 5-foot-5 Aussie, who is a surprising 3rd on tour in total aces, is feeling more comfortable with each passing match.
“I feel like every day I’ve been getting better and better,” Barty added. “I still feel great. There’s a few big months left in the season. We’re looking forward to it.”
When asked about coming into a major as a Grand Slam champion, Barty said: “Nothing has changed. I’m still the same person. It doesn’t change how I prepare or how I live my life.
“It was an incredible journey in Paris. I loved every minute of it. But as soon as we come back over to America, I couldn’t wait to get to New York.”
Barty just extended her stay here and isn’t looking to depart anytime soon.
The US Open women’s singles promises to be a tightly fought affair after Serena Williams, Barty, Johanna Konta, and Madison Keys all impressed on Friday.
Williams was in particularly powerful form, requiring just 74 minutes to beat Karolina Muchova, 6-3 6-2.
The 37-year-old is battling for her 24th Grand Slam title, and she believes she is a contender in New York.
“Like I said on the court, I don’t know how I would grade my performance. Just gotta keep playing and believing,” Serena said.
The 6-time US Open champion clinched her crucial win over the Czech to enter reach the 4th round after converting 5 out of 9 break points.
Barring a broken service midway through the second set, it was a great display of attacking tennis from Serena in Arthur Ashe Stadium, which she later described as an ’intense’ performance.
It was an historic day for women’s tennis, for on 30 August, 1950, Althea Gibson made her debut appearance as the first black player to compete at the US Championships, as it was called then.
And it was 20 years ago at this tournament that Williams, now 37, won the first of her 6 US Open women’s singles titles, at the age 17.
It was also a day of firsts for 23-year-old Muchova, who was playing her first match against Williams in her debut appearance in Arthur Ashe Stadium.
The players kept pace with each other in the first set, until Williams put pressure on her opponent’s serve, resulting in 3 break-point opportunities.
Muchova served her way out of trouble to stay on serve, but at 3-3, Williams finally converted on a break-point chance, giving her the opportunity to serve, at 4-3.
It wasn’t an easy hold for Williams, who double-faulted at deuce, but noticing how far back Muchova was standing to receive, she threw down an 86 miles-per-hour change-up serve.
She held, then broke a rattled Muchova to take the set, 6-3.
Williams was up, 3-0, in the second set before the match hit the hour mark, when Williams’ serve stopped hitting its mark, and her double-fault count crept up to 7.
The American dropped her serve but recovered, taking the second set after an hour and 14 minutes to set up her next meeting with Petra Martic in the Round of 16, who comes into the match on the back of a win against Anastasija Sevastova from Latvia.
While Serena characterised her play as ‘intense’ and referenced a slower start, she seemed comfortable with her level of play.
Better still, her demeanour was happy and relaxed, laughing about how day matches give her a chance to go home and see her baby, a reference to her daughter, Olympia, who will turn 2 over the weekend.
She also gave a shout out to the crowd, packed with her fans: “You guys are an A-plus,” she said.
Overall, Williams appears to be getting more comfortable with every match, opening up her game, looking relaxed and, in her own words, ‘feeling good’, which may be not-so-good news for Martic, the No 22 seed from Croatia.
Martic upset the 12th-seeded Sevastova, from Latvia, 6-4 6-3, a semi-finalist in New York last year.
On paper, the match had the potential to become an outer court classic, with Martic having the best season of her career and Sevastova, practically New York royalty, having made the quarter-final or better in Flushing Meadows for 3 straight years.
Early on, it was more like a contest over who could make less errors, as the two battled nerves and the conditions.
Martic eventually found her rhythm, and her first serve, and began to control most of the points, pushing the Latvian back with penetrating shots.
At 4-3, Sevastova did have an opportunity to grab a break and go up 5-3, but couldn’t put a return in play and, instead, Martic broke her in the very next game and served out the set.
In the second set, Martic capitalised on 3 unforced errors from Sevastova to immediately break in the first game and was never put under pressure on her own serve for the remainder of the match, never facing a break point.
Ultimately, Sevastova, who can normally wow any crowd, and fluster any opponent, with her crafty style of play, was just too inconsistent on Friday, striking twice as many unforced errors as winners in the second set alone.
Martic is having a huge year, reaching the French Open quarters, winning her first-ever WTA title in Istanbul and ending her clay court season with a 15-3 record.
She also reached the Round of 16 on the grass at Wimbledon, a surface she has struggled on in the past.
She will have her work cut out for her, though, if she wants to do more damage at this US Open, facing Serena Williams for the first time in her career.
Karolina Pliskova also advanced, beating Ons Jabeur, 6-1 4-6 6-4, and she may need to be at her best to advance any further, with next opponent Johanna konta, who was in particularly impressive form in her 6-2 6-3 win over Shuai Zhang.