On June 7, 2019, Ashleigh Barty advanced to the French Open final after converting her sixth match point.
“My toughest match mentally, physically, the occasion, the conditions – it was pretty brutal out there,” she said afterward. “I’m proud of myself for fighting, scrapping, hanging in there to find a way when I threw away that first set.”
Her opponent that day? A fearless 17-year-old named Amanda Anisimova, who despite that 7-6 (4), 6-3, 6-3 loss, seemed poised to become a major factor in elite tennis. Barty, of course, went on to win her first Grand Slam singles title. Anisimova? She was destined to struggle, as so many prodigies in this sport do.
Some 28 months later, they meet again Sunday at the Australian Open in something that feels bigger than a fourth-round match. Barty has been the No.1 player in the world for 112 consecutive weeks and is 7-0 in 2022 with a title in Adelaide. Anisimova is 8-0, winning her second career title two weeks ago in Melbourne. One of those wins came Friday night against defending champion Naomi Osaka in a glorious third-round match.
How will this one shake out? We make the case for both players:
Advantage, Ashleigh Barty
How do you defeat Barty? That's the question for the field as 2022 begins. The World No.1 has effectively dominated her first seven matches of the year. How good has she been? After shutting down her season after the US Open, Barty returned to competition at the Adelaide 500 to defeat Coco Gauff and three Top 20 players to win the title. She's only improved in Melbourne.
En route to her fourth straight Round of 16 at the Australian Open, Barty has lost just eight games. She has not been broken in 58 service games. After dominating Lesia Tsurenko and Lucia Bronzetti from the baseline in the first two rounds, she smartly withstood the potential barrage from Camila Giorgi in the third round, losing just five games.
In short, it's been a perfect leadup for Barty into the second week, where she will try to end Australia's 44-year drought since the last women's singles champion.
The match against Giorgi was good preparation, at least thematically, for what Barty will face against Anisimova. The American is a clean big-hitter, who doubled up defending champion Naomi Osaka in the winners column in the third round. As a teen, Anisimova led Barty by a set and 3-0 in the 2019 Roland Garros semifinals before capitulating in a three-set loss. In many ways, it was a match that Barty wants to forget. Yet it also forged a version of the Australian that would become a major champion and dominant No.1.
"I remember the biggest moment of that match was coming out of the chair at 3-love down the second set,” she said. “I remember that to this very day what I was saying to myself at that change of ends. From then on, it's held me in pretty good stead, sticking to those values and continuing to try and grow each and every time on court and problem-solve and work my way through.
"It hasn't worked every time, but it's made me really comfortable and made me feel like I belong out on the court. I get to do it my way. I get to be unique. I get to experiment and I get to have fun with it."
Barty wouldn't disclose what exactly she said to herself to turn that match around, but the results have been unassailable. Anisimova has been fantastic to start the season, with ball-striking that has, at times, looked impossible to defend. But there is not better tactical mind on tour than Barty. If there's a solution to navigate past the American, Barty will find it. – Courtney Nguyen
Advantage, Amanda Anisimova
The second set of that cathartic 2019 match at Roland Garros against Anisimova was a turning point in the career of Barty. The turning point.
It was the first time, Barty said, that she successfully figured out a solution on the fly in a monumental match. And while she is acknowledged today as the best tactician among today’s players, perhaps this highly anticipated fourth-round rematch at the Australian Open will be the same for Anisimova. For it’s clear the 20-year-old American seems determined to take the next step.
Back at that French Open, she stunned defending champion Simona Halep in the quarterfinals to advance to that match against Barty. She did it again against Osaka in Melbourne, saving two match points in the third round. Hard to believe it was Anisimova’s first victory over a Top 20 player after nine consecutive losses.
The difference? Her resolve to stay aggressive in that third-set tiebreak.
“I think in the tiebreak I really tried to stay in those moments, just try to dig deep and try to make those returns, which I think I did the best was in the tiebreaker,” Anisimova told reporters. “Yeah, I’ve worked a lot on it, and I think all the work I’ve done in the preseason has helped me for today.”
Osaka is one of the biggest hitters on tour, but Anisimova had more than twice as many winners, 46-21. That kind of aggression is what makes her such a threat to Barty. It’s the kind of tennis she’s been missing since the front end of that 2019 season. The death of her coaching father and a case of Covid-19 before last year’s Australian Open took her down the rankings ladder.
Her coach of the moment is Darren Cahill, the outgoing Aussie who took Andre Agassi, Lleyton Hewitt, and Simona Halep to the top of tennis. Cahill will give Anisimova a specific game plan, which helps level the field against Barty and coach Craig Tyzzer.
“Yesterday I was kind of stressing myself out a little bit trying to play perfect,” Anisimova said Friday. “He intervenes in those moments and tells me, just relax, and play the game that I know.”
She’s ranked No.60, but Anisimova has been in this spot before. Three years ago, she reached a Slam fourth round as a 17-year-old. And, yes, Barty dropped only eight games in the first week of this tournament, but Anisimova has a few numbers going for her. That 8-0 start includes five matches won in the third set or beyond.
There were times when Anisimova wondered if she’d ever play in another Grand Slam.
“Like those thoughts try to creep up in my head sometimes,” Anisimova said. “But I really wanted to be having these moments again.”
This is her time to seize it. – Greg Garber
More on tap for Day 7
Three other Round of 16 Sunday matches from the top half of the draw, all featuring the expected top seeds. Let’s go:
No.4 Barbora Krejcikova versus No.24 Victoria Azarenka
After Azarenka defeated No.15 Elina Svitolina 6-0, 6-2 – in 68 minutes – the press asked her 5-year-old son how his mother played.
“Awesome,” Leo Azarenka said.
“Thank you for that,” Azarenka said. “Thank you.”
She may be 32 years old, but Azarenka is once again channeling her terrific Down Under history. The 2012 and 2013 Australian Open champion is now 42-11 in matches at Melbourne Park.
Krejcikova, meanwhile, came back to upend No.26 Jelena Ostapenko 2-6, 6-4, 6-4.
“I remember when I was a junior here and she was playing, she was actually winning the titles,” Krejcikova said. “Yeah, I mean, I spent a lot of time watching her on TV.
“I’m looking forward for this challenge, for this battle. It was also one of the things that I was thinking about during the match. `OK, you got to work harder so you can play Vika.’”
Said Azarenka, “I think the rise of Barbora has been pretty incredible over the last year and a half, basically since Covid. She seems to kind of elevate her game more and more. She has all the good tools to play. She can play aggressive, she can mix it up. Very dangerous player.”
Head-to-head: 1-0, Azarenka, a 2020 Round of 16 in Ostrava, 2-6, 6-2, 6-1.
No.5 Maria Sakkari versus No.21 Jessica Pegula
The last time they played …
“We had an epic battle,” Sakkari said of their encounter last March in Miami. “I won 7-6 in the third saving, like, six match points. I’m expecting a very tough match.”
Pegula remembered it the same way, saying, “That was an insane match. It was crazy. I had match points, but, I mean, I remember, credit to her, I didn’t really do anything wrong on those match points, she literally was just like hitting the line like winners. I remember she hit like four backhand down-the-line winners or something crazy.”
To get here, Sakkari defeated No.28 Veronika Kudermetova 6-4, 6-1. Pegula was a 7-6 (3), 6-2 winner over Nuria Parrizas Diaz.
A year ago, Pegula was an Australian Open quarterfinalist and has compiled a 7-2 overall record.
“Her groundstrokes are very flat and fast,” Sakkari said. “She has a great rhythm. Mentally she’s very good. Like she keeps calm. You’ll never see her, like, breaking racquets or doing these things. She’s mature, which makes it a lot easier.”
Head-to-head: 2-0, Sakkari, in addition to 2021 Miami, 2019 Eastbourne first round.
No.8 Paula Badosa versus Madison Keys
While Badosa was on her way to a career season, Keys was headed in the opposite direction.
The 26-year-old American finished 11-15.
“You know, that’s kind of how tennis works, isn’t it,” she said laughing in a conversation with WTA Insider. “Look, we can only go up from that, really.”
In the first three weeks of 2022, Keys has won nine of 10 matches – two behind her 2021 total. In the third round, Keys went the distance with Wang Qiang, prevailing 4-6, 6-3, 7-6 (10-2).
“I think the tiebreaker, I kind of blacked out – and it was just sort of my best tennis,” she said.
Keys thrives in Australia; she was a semifinalist here in 2015 and has a sparkling 23-8 career record.
Badosa was tested by teenager and good friend Marta Kostyuk, but prevailed 6-2, 5-7, 6-4.
“I know she serves very big, very good forehand,” Badosa said of Keys. “She goes for it. She likes to play big, and she likes to play on big stages as well. She’s used to it. She’s playing with confidence.”