Australian Open: What you need to know

ICYMI: Best of Day 7

DAY 8 MATCHES TO WATCH

They were born in a span of three years in the eastern part of the United States – and now, more than two decades later, they find themselves half a world away among the final 12 women competing for the Australian Open title.

Monday’s top-half-of-the-draw, fourth-round matches feature No. 22 Jennifer Brady and her unseeded cohorts, Jessica Pegula and Shelby Rogers.

“Woo,” Rogers said after they all vaulted into the second week of a major.

2021 Australian Open Highlights Day 4: Rogers soars past Danilovic

“Go, USA. It’s so cool, seeing all these girls I grew up with and we’ve known each other for so many years, do really well and play some awesome tennis and on the biggest stages. We’re all supporting each other. We have some fun chats going on. It’s really cool to see us all keep going.”

They have all taken daunting and circuitous routes to Melbourne Park. Rogers overcame a career-threatening knee injury that sidelined her for more than a year. Pegula, too, had an injury (hip) that cost her 18 months and forced her to consider retirement. Brady broke through at the 2017 Australian Open, qualifying and reaching the fourth round, but a pronounced singles slump followed.

Perhaps these twists and turns helped them deal with the upheaval and uncertainty of this global pandemic.

“We’re always laughing when we’re together and genuinely all enjoying it out here on the Tour,” Rogers explained. “I think that speaks volumes to why we are playing so well, just able to adapt and adjust to everything that’s been thrown at us over the last year and enjoy most of it.”

AN `EXCEPTIONALLLY TOUGH’ MATCH

No. 1 Ashleigh Barty vs. Shelby Rogers

After nearly a year off, Barty has looked like the No. 1-ranked player she is, ripping off seven consecutive match wins. The 24-year-old Australian defeated Garbine Muguruza in a rousing straight-sets final at the Yarra Valley Classic. In the quarterfinals, she was pushed to a super tiebreaker, winning 7-5, 2-6, (10-4).

Her opponent? Shelby Rogers.

“It’s always exceptionally tough against Shelby,” Barty said after handling Ekaterina Alexandrova 6-2, 6-4. “She’s got the ability to take the game away from you, she’s got the ability to give you no control out there. And that’s something I’m going to have to try and nullify and neutralize as best I can.

2021 Australian Open Highlights Day 4: Barty holds off Gavrilova

“Sometimes you have to almost dangle a carrot in a way where you tempt her to try and take some risks. I’ll have to do that, try all different things, just as I did last week and just as I’ve done every time that I’ve played her.”

Barty reached the semifinals here a year ago, losing to eventual champion Sofia Kenin. She holds a 2-0 head-to-head edge against Rogers, including a second-round match at the 2017 Australian Open. Neither player has dropped a set.

The 28-year-old American was ranked No. 174 to start last season but has worked her way up to No. 57. This is her best-ever run Down Under and she’s trying to equal her best career Grand Slam efforts, the quarterfinals at the 2016 French Open and last year’s US Open.

Rogers beat No. 21 Anett Kontaveit 6-4, 6-3 to get here.

“I’m excited we won’t have to play a third-set breaker, because she definitely got me in that one, she kicked my butt a little bit,” Rogers admitted. “I’m excited to get another shot. Unfortunately again, you know, the fans won’t be there. But maybe that’s in my favor this time, the Barty Party won’t be present.”

THAT FIGHTING SPIRIT

No. 18 Elise Mertens vs. No. 25 Karolina Muchova

No. 6 seed Karolina Pliskova won the first five games of the second set against fellow Czech and good friend Muchova – and then lost the last seven.

“It’s about, yeah, a few points,” Muchova, 24, said later. “I just believed that I can still make it. I saw that she was a bit nervous and shaky. All match was about to be there mentally and to fight. I’m happy that it worked out in a second set.”

Muchova prevailed 7-5, 7-5 and continues her best performance at the Australian Open. Previously, she’s made the quarterfinals of a Grand Slam once, at Wimbledon in 2019.

And so, instead of Czech Republic stalwarts Pliskova and fellow top-10 seed Petra Kvitova in the fourth round, it’s Muchova and Marketa Vondrousova.

Mertens, meanwhile, ran past No. 11 Belinda Bencic 6-2, 6-1 in a scant 63 minutes, her 100th career victory on hardcourts (100-53). She’s won the only match against Muchova, a 6-4, 6-4 round of 16 victory in Ostrava last year.

The 25-year-old Belgian broke through with an appearance in the 2018 Australian Open semifinals, losing to eventual champion Caroline Wozniacki. Mertens and Aryna Sabalenka are the No. 2-seeded doubles team.

BACK FROM THE PRECIPICE

No. 22 Jennifer Brady vs. No. 28 Donna Vekic

Kaia Kanepi had won 17 of her past 18 matches, and when she forged a match point against Vekic, things did not look good for 24-year-old Croatian.

But Vekic escaped and upended Kanepi in a 5-7, 7-6 (2), 6-4 battle that lasted 2 hours, 38 minutes.

Photo by Getty Images

“I was actually pretty pissed that I was a match point down because the game before I had a couple of break points on her serve, and I thought I was playing better,” Vekic said afterward. “I was like, `OK, how am I a match point down, I don’t want it to be over.’”

Vekic, who had lost six straight matches coming in, has now reached the fourth round of all four Grand Slam tournaments.

For Brady, the defeat of qualifier Kaja Juvan 6-1, 6-3 represented a very different kind of achievement. She’s the only player who was subjected to a hard 24/7, in-room quarantine left in the singles draw.

“Speaking to Jen and obviously practicing with her, I think her perspective on it was amazing,” Barty said. “She did what she could with what she had and came into this event as prepared as she could be. I think just having that mindset and having that positive outlook on it, being accepting of kind of the cards you’ve been dealt was really important.”

Vekic holds a 1-0 head-to-head advantage, a three-set victory in the 2018 Rome event.

“Obviously she’s also playing pretty well,” Brady said. “She beat Kanepi, who is also a force to be reckoned with when she’s playing well. I think that’s also a good win for her. To be playing here in the fourth round, I'm super excited. I think it will be a really good match.”

BREAKTHROUGH FOR PEGULA

No. 5 Elina Svitolina vs. Jessica Pegula

Pegula is not playing like the No. 61-ranked player, lowest of the eight players left in this section of the draw. She took out No. 12 seed Victoria Azarenka in the first round, then dropped all of four games in her next two matches.

This is her first appearance in the fourth round of a major.

“I’m just playing really confident right now,” she said after beating Kristina Mladenovic 6-2, 6-1. 

"I’m obviously seeing the ball and hitting the ball really well. I’m just trying to not kind of let up really at all."

- Jessica Pegula

Svitolina, who has won eight of her previous 10 matches, beat No. 26 Yulia Putinseva 6-4, 6-0. She’s won the only meeting with Pegula, 6-4, 6-3 last month in Abu Dhabi.

“She’s playing very aggressive,” Svitolina observed. “I think she picked up her game quite good for the past I think year. I’m expecting a tough battle against her.”

Svitolina has fallen to players ranked outside the top 25 in the past two Grand Slams. She’s trying to equal her best effort here, the quarterfinals in 2018 and 2019.