MELBOURNE, Australia — Twelve months ago, a golden opportunity presented itself for Ashleigh Barty to become the first homegrown player to win the Australian Open in 43 years. In the space of six enthralling hours on Day 5, the previous three women’s champions in Serena Williams, Naomi Osaka and Caroline Wozniacki all suffered shocking defeats, but Barty was unable to capitalize on the favorable draw and fell to eventual champion and 14th seed Sofia Kenin in the semifinals.
Things are quite different this year. The COVID-19 pandemic has led to “player bubbles,” no linespeople on the court and an abundance of face masks and hand sanitizer. The scene at the Australian Open only got stranger Friday evening when Victoria was put into a snap five-day lockdown in an effort to contain another spike in coronavirus cases, meaning matches would have to be played in empty arenas until restrictions could be lifted.
But amongst all of the unfamiliarity, one aspect of the tournament feels eerily reminiscent to last year. Barty once again has a sensational chance to match the achievement of Christine O’Neil over four decades ago and hoist the Daphne Akhurst Memorial Cup.
The Queenslander booked her place in the round of 16 with a comfortable 6-2, 6-4 win against 29th seed Ekaterina Alexandrova on Saturday, extending her unbeaten run on home soil in 2021 to eight matches. Barty’s loss to Kenin at last year’s Australian Open is her only defeat in Australia over her past 19 matches played here.
“[Playing in front of no fans] is very strange, something I’ve never experienced before,” Barty said after the match. “I have never played [Alexandrova] or had a hit with her before. The start was good, I just needed to work out which spots I had to hit. I was really happy with the run I was able to get on.”
There was, however, a little head-scratching in bemusement when the Day 6 schedule dropped late on Friday evening and it revealed Barty and Alexandrova would not be playing on centre court, but instead next door at Margaret Court Arena.
It wasn’t as if Barty and Alexandrova had been bumped by any sort of blockbuster match-up which was ripe for primetime on centre court. The women’s night match scheduled for Rod Laver Arena featured world No. 22 Anett Kontaveit and unseeded American Shelby Rogers — hardly household names, particularly for those in Australia.
“There are a million little pieces which go into making these decisions,” said ESPN analyst Rennae Stubbs. “But the circumstances allowed for Tennis Australia to have [Alex] De Minuar and Ash back-to-back on Margaret Court Arena. Obviously on Rod Laver, you want to have your Aussie or No. 1 seed, but because there’s no crowds and it didn’t really matter, I think they took it as an opportunity to play others on Rod Laver Arena.”
Leading into the third round of the tournament, Barty had played her past 12 Australian Open matches on Rod Laver Arena, winning 10 of them. She had only been featured on Margaret Court Arena three times in her career, for a 2-1 record, so when she was broken in the first game of the match and failed to win consecutive points until the third game, worry that a scheduling blunder could cost Barty was setting in around the country.
But Barty, who took the majority of 2020 off and was experiencing her first match in an empty stadium, soon settled and began to control the contest. She showed Alexandrova why she has the No. 1 graphic next to her name, slicing the Russian to all parts of the court before finishing points with her power. Barty needed a little over an hour to book her place in the round of 16, joining Lleyton Hewitt as the only Australian to reach that stage in Melbourne in three consecutive years.
Earlier in the day, sixth seed Karolina Pliskova and 11th seed Belinda Bencic bowed out of the tournament. The pair were on Barty’s half of the draw, along with reigning champion Kenin and 2019 US Open winner Bianca Andreescu, who both exited earlier in the week after shock second round defeats. Things have really opened up for Barty.
The Queenslander will now face Rogers, who prevailed in dominant fashion over Kontaveit in their battle on Rod Laver Arena. The only meeting between the two came in the second round of the Australian Open in 2017, Barty winning in straight sets.
“She will be back on RLA, 100 percent,” Stubbs said of Barty’s fourth-round match. “I think she’s very well aware of what’s happening and I can’t imagine her playing on a court she didn’t want to play on.”
Barty is already a heavy favourite with bookmakers to defeat Rogers and win through to the quarterfinals where she would face the winner of Elise Mertens and Karolina Muchova, two players who are ranked outside the top 15 in the world. In fact, the only top-10 ranked player who remains on Barty’s side of the draw is Ukrainian Elina Svitolina, who is yet to reach a Slam final in her career.
Meanwhile, on the other half of the draw, Serena, Osaka and Simona Halep will likely be fighting for a coveted place in the final. There’s no doubt which side of the draw Barty would prefer to be on.