MELBOURNE, Australia - No.1 seed Ashleigh Barty recovered from a subpar first set to overcome Lesia Tsurenko 5-7, 6-1, 6-1 and move into the second round of the Australian Open in one hour and 36 minutes.
The 23-year-old has handled milestone after milestone with aplomb over the past year - triumphing in her first Grand Slam final at Roland Garros, capturing the World No.1 ranking two weeks later by winning Birmingham, becoming the first Australian woman to lift a trophy on home soil in eight years in Adelaide last week. But although Barty has stated that she doesn't read the papers and feels "no extra pressure", the decades since Australia had a player of her stature are unignorable: she is the first home top seed at the Australian Open since Evonne Goolagong Cawley in 1977, and no Australian woman has won the tournament since Chris O'Neil in 1978.
In light of these expectations - as well as the fact that Tsurenko won their last match 6-3, 6-2 in the second round of Brisbane 2018 - it was perhaps to be expected that Barty emerged playing without her usual baseline fluency. Though her serve was clicking, with four aces in her first two service games alone, the rest of the Australian's game was misfiring on routine rally shots.
"It was disappointing to not start as well as I would have liked," mused Barty afterwards. "I was frustrated that I wasn't hitting the ball in the court when I wanted to. I think I was aiming for big targets and missing by quite a bit, which I wasn't comfortable with. Being able to kind of rectify that and fix that so quickly at the start of the second set was really important."
A scrappy opening set ensued. Twice, Tsurenko moved up a break as Barty interspersed flashes of her usual high quality with error-strewn patches. But the Ukrainian former World No.23, playing just her second match after being sidelined for five months since last July due to a right elbow injury and now ranked World No.120, was also not at her highest level, and would concede both leads with wild forehand shanks and double faults.
Nevertheless, Tsurenko would come up with the best tennis of the set in its closing stages: redirecting Barty's pace for a marvellous forehand down-the-line winner before flicking a pass past her en route to breaking again for a 6-5 lead. Once more, Tsurenko did her best to squander the lead, offering up her worst double fault yet, but Barty was unable to take advantage, ballooning a final forehand over the baseline down set point to take her unforced error tally for the set to 19.
"She's an incredibly tough opponent. She moves very well. She's able to cover the court when she can. I know she's had a layoff recently because of injuries. I think she's still working her way back into her best tennis," continued the Aussie.
"She's a great ball striker and is able to manipulate you around the court a lot. I think it was important for me to try and bring it back to my side a little bit more, play more my style of tennis. I was able to do that in the second and the third."
The only way was up for the WTA Finals champion - and the second set found Barty improving, as she has made a habit of doing week-in, week-out, by making the necessary adjustments to raise her game. Tightening up her groundstrokes in particular, Barty lowered her unforced error count to five - while Tsurenko continued to gift flurries of cheap points, opening her first service game with another two double faults and repeatedly mistiming volleys. The consequent momentum shift was immediate and one-sided as Barty broke the 30-year-old twice before slamming down three aces to serve out the second act.
There would be no let-up in the deciding set as Tsurenko continued to be plagued by double faults, committing her sixth and seventh to fall behind an immediate break. By contrast, Barty appeared to have put her nervy start firmly behind her: no longer shedding cheap mistakes, the home favorite had now found her rhythm and was constructing all-court points with her customary panache. A brilliantly dipping backhand pass paved the way to the double break and a 4-0 lead, and another one off the forehand side did the same in the final game.
The cream always rises to the 🔝@ashbarty comes from a set down against Lesia Tsurenko, def. the Ukrainian 5-7 6-1 6-1 to advance to the second round for the fourth time.#AO2020 | #AusOpen pic.twitter.com/aw7ws9MmBa— #AusOpen (@AustralianOpen) January 20, 2020
While Barty had reduced her unforced error tally to six in the decider, the rusty Tsurenko was still too mistake-prone, committing 26 to just four winners in the last two sets. Appropriately enough, the four-time WTA titlist would conclude the match with her ninth double fault of the day, sending Barty through to face either Rebecca Peterson or Polona Hercog in the second round.
"All in all, I think it was really nice to be able to tighten the screws, run away with it in the second and third," assessed Barty of the overall match.
"I felt comfortable knowing that I just needed to change a few things, to adjust, to try and bring the match back in my favor... Knowing that I've come back from being a set down in many matches is good. I'd prefer not to be in that situation. It's good knowing I have the ability to trust myself when I need to."