MELBOURNE, Australia - Local hope Ashleigh Barty is the first player to reach the fourth round at the Australian Open - and she’s done so for the first time in her career after edging Maria Sakkari in two sets.
Barty, the No.15 seed, was tested by the rising Greek star Sakkari, especially in the close opening set, but she aced the challenge to win 7-5, 6-1 in an hour and 20 minutes.
With the victory, Barty continues her upward trajectory to reach back-to-back Grand Slam fourth rounds after last year’s US Open run. The 22-year-old is also the first Australian woman to reach this stage since Daria Gavrilova in 2017.
After claiming the biggest title of her career at the WTA Elite Trophy Zhuhai at the end of 2018, Barty has showed no signs of slowing down in the new season. She started the year with her second-straight appearance at the Sydney International final, and in Melbourne she’s needed just 122 minutes combined to power into the third round.
“I feel great [making the fourth round],” Barty told press after the match. “You have to keep giving yourself the opportunity to do better and better. You have to keep chipping away.
“It's all trusting in the process and the work that my team and myself has done in the preseason, and throughout the last 18 months, two years… It's getting to the point now where I'm feeling more and more comfortable on the court and can play my brand of tennis, which when I execute I know it works against the best in the world.”
Up against Sakkari, who Barty called a “great friend” ahead of the match, the Australian continued her scorching form. Barty fired 13 aces - with no double faults - across both sets, and wracked up 29 winners and 20 unforced errors, and keeping her opponent contained to just nine and 26, respectively.
But it was anyone’s match during the tightly-contested opening set, playing under the roof of Rod Laver Arena. Barty’s powerful serving kept her on the front foot in the rallies, but Sakkari handled and redirected the pace with style, staying toe to toe with her opponent.
Both players created break chances in the first two games of the set, dialled in from the start, but it was Barty who drew first blood to lead 3-1. Sakkari didn’t let it go unanswered, and she gritted out a break straight back to pull them back level again.
But while Sakkari did her best to stay apace with Barty, it seemed only a matter of time for the Australian No.1, who was the first to break and later the first to reach set point with a break chance at 5-4. Sakkari fought that one off, but she couldn’t hold Barty back a second time as the No.15 seed sealed the set two games later.
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The second set was a more one-sided affair, with Barty playing confidently against a frustrated Sakkari. The Australian regularly directed the balls to the middle of the court, depriving Sakkari of the angles she enjoys, and keeping her firmly out of the rallies. As a result, Barty zoomed through the set, reeling off five games in a row to claim the win in 80 minutes.
An even bigger challenge could await Barty in the next round, with either No.3 seed Caroline Wozniacki - the defending champion - or No.30 seed Maria Sharapova to face in the round of 16.
“It's another opportunity for me to go out and test myself against the world's best,” Barty said. “Whoever wins that match, obviously they are both quality champions. It's just an opportunity for me to go and test myself against the best.”