Everything falling into place for Barty in Melbourne

MELBOURNE, Australia — It’s been 42 years since a homegrown player won an Australian Open singles title. Christine O’Neil was the last to achieve the feat way back in 1978, long before Grand Slam fields expanded to 128 players.

Since then, there have been many who have carried the expectations of a nation with a celebrated tennis past, but all of have fallen short of landing the ultimate prize. Lleyton Hewitt may have conquered both Wimbledon and Flushing Meadows, but a title at Melbourne Park eluded him throughout his decorated career. Pat Rafter could never do it, nor could Pat Cash, Mark Philippoussis or Samantha Stosur.

Entering 2020, the local expectation was heaped on recent world No. 1 Ashleigh Barty. From posters at the airport to billboards in the city, look anywhere in Melbourne and you’ll find her. The happy-go-lucky, unassuming Queenslander would be the first top seed at an Australian Open since Hewitt in 2003 and first on the women’s side of the draw since her childhood idol Evonne Goolagong, way back in 1977.

“There’s no extra pressure,” a composed Barty said in Melbourne before the tournament began. “It’s amazing to have so much support and so much love from the Australian public, but I don’t read the papers. I don’t look at it any more than I need to.”

The 2019 French Open champion may have had the coveted “1” placed next to her name, however, the evenness of women’s tennis meant lifting the Daphne Akhurst trophy at the end of the fortnight was always going to be a monumental task.

But on Friday, things changed dramatically.

In the space of six hours, as daylight slowly transitioned into darkness, no fewer than three former Australian Open champions were sent packing. By the end of the day, Barty wasn’t just a player with a genuine chance of winning her home Slam, she was the favourite. The outright favourite. For the first time in what seemed like an eternity, the Australian Open was an Australian’s to lose.

The first to bite the dust on Friday afternoon was 2018 champion Caroline Wozniacki. The 2020 tournament in Melbourne was always going to be the Dane’s farewell tour, but few expected her to fall in the third round to little-known Tunisian Ons Jabeur.

Then came one of the greatest shocks ever seen on Rod Laver Arena. China’s Qiang Wang defied the odds to overcome 23-time Grand Slam champion Serena Williams in a gripping three-set match which left those in attendance shell-shocked. Just like that, the pre-tournament favourite was out.

But there was still another surprise in store. A short while later, 15-year-old American sensation Coco Gauff eliminated reigning champion Naomi Osaka. “Was this real life?” she said after the match, a sentiment shared by just about everyone at Melbourne Park, as well as millions more watching on around the globe.

Wozniacki, Williams and Osaka were all on Barty’s half of the draw. In the blink of an eye, everything had aligned for the Australian.

With that said, Barty’s quarterfinal is anything but straightforward. The 23-year-old meets a familiar foe in 7th seed Petra Kvitova, the woman responsible for sending her crashing out of the Australian Open at the very same stage in 2019.

“I’ve played Petra a few more times [since then]. I’m more experienced,” Barty told reporters after her fourth round win over American Alison Riske. “Tactically, the last few times we’ve played Petra, we’ve had small adjustments. It’s never an easy match – all but one have gone to three sets.”

So far, Barty is handling the pressure of a nation starved of a homegrown Australian Open champion.

She may have made a couple of nervy starts to her matches, but once comfortable with the ever-changing Rod Laver Arena conditions and her opponent, she has mostly bossed her contests.

“If a player’s going to beat me, they are going to have to play a very high-quality match for a long period of time,” Barty declared early in the tournament. “It’s not just for the first three or four games or the first set, it’s across the three-set match.

“So it’s not about how you start; it’s about how you continue through the match. That’s the challenge I try and present to my opponents.”

If Barty can overcome Kvitova, a place in the semifinals will be hers. She would face either unseeded Tunisian Ons Jabeur or 21-year-old American Sofia Kenin.

Some might say that with the Czech in ominous touch and looking to back up last year’s dream run to the final, this quarterfinal match against Barty may determine the eventual Australian Open victor.

And with No. 2 seed Karolina Pliskova, No. 5 seed Elina Svitolina and No. 6 seed Belinda Bencic all being bundled out of the tournament on Day 6, just five of the top 15 women’s seeds remain in the race for singles glory. The women’s draw has never been more open.

For 42 years Australians have been craving a home champion of their most prestigious tennis tournament, and 2020 offers the best chance in years for the drought to be broken. Over to you, Ash.

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