MELBOURNE, Australia - There would be no déjà vu for No.1 seed Ashleigh Barty, who overcame No.18 seed Alison Riske 6-3, 1-6, 6-4 in the fourth round of the Australian Open to reverse the result of their clash at the same stage of Wimbledon last year.
Barty had in fact lost to the American in both of their previous encounters, with a 2016 loss in the Eastbourne ITF 50K event followed by a 3-6, 6-2, 6-3 defeat last July in her first major as World No.1. This time, though, playing Riske away from her beloved grass for the first time, the 23-year-old delivered a composed tactical performance to overcome a mid-match dip and move into the quarterfinals of her home major for the second year in a row - extending her winning streak to eight matches.
Afterwards, Barty paid tribute to her opponent. "Alison is not just a tough opponent for me, she's a tough opponent for every single girl on the tour," she stated. "She has the ability to adapt her game, to make the opponent uncomfortable. I think she's got a great tennis brain of problem solving, as well."
The crowd favorite also spoke about the challenges of playing in windy weather on Rod Laver Arena. "Tricky conditions," said Barty. "I think end to end was very different. The breeze is always a little bit different at court level than it is kind of up in the stands. Tonight was stronger than the other days. It was just about adapting and trying to work through it as best as you can. It was important to try and hold and stay and fight for every point from the end where you were against the wind, and make the most of it when you were with the wind."
Canny shot selection and point construction characterized a solid opening set from Barty, who seized a quick lead out of the blocks and kept her nose in front throughout. Drawing errors from Riske's groundstrokes with knifing slice to break first and build a 3-0 lead and using the same stroke to drag the Wuhan finalist from line to line in one of the set's top highlights, Barty managed to hold Riske's flat, aggressive game at bay for the most part.
The 29-year-old was able to strike back, putting away a lovely volley before nailing a backhand that was too hot for Barty to handle to break back. But Barty wasted no time in regaining her lead, taking advantage of careless forehand errors from Riske and moving back up 4-2 with a forehand winner of her own. Maintaining a first serve percentage of 61% and winning 82% of those points, the Roland Garros champion capably closed out the set at the first time of asking.
The tables would turn in the second set, in an almost identical fashion as they had at Wimbledon. Barty, who had kept her unforced error count down to nine in the first set, would lose her timing and rhythm across the board, committing 12 unforced errors to only three winners in the second set; by contrast, Riske would strike five winners in each set, but reduce her error tally from 13 to just four.
Even the World No.1's touch deserted her: Barty conceded a first break as a backhand slice went over the baseline, and a second when a lob also drifted long. Riske, meanwhile, would only lose five points on serve in the entire second act, forcing a decider with consecutive service winners.
In London, Riske had been able to ride her second-set turnaround to victory - but Barty was determined not to allow history to repeat itself. The WTA Finals champion was still visibly frustrated by her inconsistency - but a brilliant, bold fourth game demonstrated all of her mettle to seize control of the match once again. The inside-in forehand was one of Barty's most useful shots today, and a pair of deeply struck ones carved out a break point for her. Sensing her chance and trusting in her skillset, the Australian wasted no time in making her way forwards - a decision that paid off as she put away a volley to seal the crucial break.
"I was a little bit loose, pressed too much," said Barty of her second-set loss. "Very proud of the way we were able to bring it back in the third, go back to the patterns I wanted to play."
Riske's penchant for a comeback - she saved match points en route to three wins in 2019, the joint most of any player last season - has made her one of the Tour's most formidable competitors, though. The 's-Hertogenbosch champion refused to lie down, breaking back and levelling the score at 4-4 amidst another flurry of Barty errors, which would tally 13 in the decider.
But the Adelaide champion held firm, reasserting her authority with another brace of inside-in forehand winners. The closing stages of the match would be decided by inches: with Riske serving at 4-5, 30-30, Barty came up with a backhand crosscourt pass that just caught her opponent out - before the Wimbledon quarterfinalist, facing her first match point, coughed up just her second double fault of the day in an unfortunate ending.
For Barty, though, the one-hour, 36-minute victory keeps her hopes of becoming the first Australian women's champion since Chris O'Neil in 1978 alive - and sets up a repeat of last year's quarterfinal against No.7 seed Petra Kvitova.