Ashleigh Barty sees off Maria Sharapova in Melbourne
Barty becomes first Australian woman to reach the quarter-finals in 10 years
Ashleigh Barty beat Maria Sharapova in three sets in Melbourne. Photograph: Cameron Spencer/Getty
Australians, generally, do not over-react to winning against the odds, partly because the gambling culture embedded so deeply in the national psyche is the perfect tool for handling the highs and lows of sport.
So Ashleigh Barty’s thrilling win over Maria Sharapova on day seven of the Australian Open to ensure a quarter-final appearance – the first by an Australian woman since Jelena Dokic 10 years ago – was acclaimed not as a shock but a deserved dividend on her backing her freewheeling tennis.
Barty took the risk and reaped the reward. It is the Australian way. If she’d lost, she would have done so properly – not, it has to be repeated, with the sulking to which some of her compatriots in the men’s draw can fall prey.
“Maria was never going to go away,” Barty said after beating Sharapova 4-6, 6-1, 6-4 in two hours and 22 minutes on Rod Laver Arena, shortly after her next opponent, Petra Kvitova, had taken just under an hour on the same court to beat the exciting American teenager, Amanda Animisova, in straight sets.
Barty, who swapped high-level cricket for tennis three years ago, appears nerveless, although she admits the adrenaline will flow when she plays No 8 seed Kvitova so soon after losing to her in the final of the Sydney International last weekend.
“It’s exciting that I get to have another chance at Petra straight away,” she said. “Not often does that happen, where you get to kind of have a replay against the same opponent.”
Barty will have two nations supporting her charge to what would be the first appearance by a home player in an Australian Open semi-final since 1990, when Wendy Turnbull went on to win the title. Besides the obvious love that has flowed her way across the board in the first week, her Indigenous roots mean a lot to her, as they did to Evonne Goolagong Cawley, who won four slams here.
“I try and set a good example and try and be a good role model by my actions,” Barty said. “I know the Indigenous community would be extremely proud of me. Evonne and Roger [Cawley, her British-born husband and a former junior player] are. They’re really nice accolades to get but, when I’m out on the court, I’m just trying to fight as hard as I can for every single point, trying to play the game in the right spirit, and play as hard as I can, play fairly and give it a crack.”
“She’s a proven champion,” Barty said of Sharapova. “Time and time again, it proves she will fight until the last point.”
So does Barty. Growing up in Ipswich, she learned the rudiments then the tricks from a local coach, Jim Joyce, who was in awe of her power and hand-eye coordination, skills that carried her briefly into cricket (after depression struck in the early days of her tennis career) and allow her to play golf to a handicap of 10 without ever having had a lesson.
On court, she has the scurrying muscularity of the world No 1, Simona Halep, but adds a metronomic single-handed backhand with bags of undercut spin, a serve-and-volley game that distracts her more programmed opponents, and a killing kick serve. They are weapons that could take her all the way to the final.
Sharapova went down screaming, of course, but was less vocal later when stonewalling difficult questions about her history here with Meldonium, which cost her 15 months of her career after she failed a drugs test at this event years ago. The silent death stare that greeted the inquiry about how she was coping without the banned substance would have unsettled a trained spy.
Asked about what she thought when the crowd booed her after she took a toilet break before the start of the third set, she said, “What do you want me to say to that question?” The truth, her inquisitor responded. “I think that’s a silly question to ask,” she said. If Maria says it’s silly, it gets parked. From there the exchange went slowly downhill.
It seems she will always be admired, respected and even feared, but not widely loved. It is her decision that it is like that. She attributed some of her 10 double-faults to serving from the end where the sun was shining directly into her eyes, which was a fair point. Barty kept hers to a manageable four.
Sharapova did hit the target with one observation, one that suggests she will soldier on, despite four barren years since she won her seventh slam at Roland Garros. “I think it would be tough for me to be doing all the work and putting in all the effort if I didn’t really believe that [she could win again]. I think I’d be kidding myself.” Overall, it was a performance - uptight, anxious, dogged - theatrically at odds with Barty’s smiling acceptance of how the shots fell and the points ebbed.
There was one genuine shock on Sunday: The 25-year-old American, Danielle Collins, with a game honed in college tennis, hit 29 winners in 56 minutes to put former champion Angelique Kerber out, winning 6-0, 6-2.
The Floridian, more used to the backwaters of her sport but up to No 35 in the world rankings after a breakthrough year in 2018, described her run to the quarter-finals as “an incredible experience”, having never previously won a singles grand-slam match before arriving in Melbourne.