MELBOURNE, Australia - World No.1 Ashleigh Barty wasted no time in reaching the last 16 at the Australian Open, surviving a stern test from on-the-rise Elena Rybakina in straight sets, 6-3, 6-2.
Barty delighted fans on Rod Laver Arena with a commanding display of her all-court tennis, firing 28 winners and breaking Rybakina five times to seal the victory after 78 minutes.
“I think today was probably my sharpest match that I played,” Barty told press afterward. “I felt really comfortable moving around the court. I felt like I found the middle of the racquet a lot sooner than my other matches.
“Particularly there were tough, long service games. I was able to get out of them and continue the momentum. I think all in all it was a pretty well-rounded performance.”
Coming into Melbourne, Barty shook off an opening-round loss in Brisbane and went on to claim her first WTA title on home soil at the Adelaide International. She hopes to repeat the feat this fortnight as well and become the first Aussie since 1978 to lift the trophy at home.
“I watched a few of her matches from Hobart,” Barty said. “She played Lizette [Cabrera], one of our Aussie girls, down in Hobart. We watched that matched purely out of interest with Lizette.
“It was really good to see a young player who's a great ball-striker, good mover, has no fear out there.”
Rybakina showed that high level in the early stages of the match, breaking Barty to love in a statement opening game and staying toe-to-toe with the World No.1. The pair traded breaks twice in a row, with Barty having to level back each time to make it 2-2.
Having such a dialed-in challenger seemed to galvanize Barty, and she raised her level considerably after claiming her hard-fought second break. Rybakina struggled to match the pace of the World No.1 - who won 12 of 14 points at the net - and Barty reeled off the next four of five games to seal the opening set.
Barty was under pressure for most of the second set, despite claiming an early advantage with a break at 1-0. Rybakina put up a marathon effort a game later, pushing Barty to deuce six times and earning three break points - but the Aussie’s powerful serve bailed her out of trouble to make it 2-0.
After extending her lead to a commanding double break, 4-1, Barty found herself having to pull off the same escape act again, dodging three more Rybakina break opportunities to stay in front. Saving another break point - the eighth of 10 faced today - while serving for the match, Barty punched her ticked into the fourth round after 78 minutes on court.
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“I think today was cleaner off the ground,” Barty assessed. “I felt more comfortable on my racquet. I felt like I could put the ball where I wanted to more often than not.
“It's more a feeling than anything else. Obviously I've been able to find a way and problem solve through a lot of my matches across the last two or three weeks.
“But today, just a feeling for me, felt like it was cleaner than the other matches.”
Barty’s strong serving proved the difference against Rybakina - the Aussie fired five aces and landed 65% of first serves in, winning 71% of those points. As a result, she was only broken twice from 10 opportunities, while Barty broke Rybakina five times from nine chances. Rybakina fired an impressive 23 winners, but was undone by 30 unforced errors. Barty kept her numbers more tidy, hitting 28 winners and 16 unforced errors.
The top-ranked Aussie now awaits the winner between No.18 seed Alison Riske and Julia Goerges - Barty’s doubles partner - as she seeks to return to the quarterfinals for the second straight year.