Ashleigh Barty taking a break from tennis may not have been in the script for some but the 22-year-old said it was the best thing that could have happened to her after beating Maria Sharapova to make history at the Australian Open.
Barty survived Sharapova’s comeback in the third set to defeat the five-time grand slam winner 4-6 6-1 6-4 Sunday in one of the matches of the tournament and become the first Australian woman to make the quarterfinals at her home major in 10 years.
Soon after on Margaret Court Arena, American Danielle Collins crushed 2016 titlist Angelique Kerber 6-0 6-2 in a massive upset to land in a maiden grand slam quarterfinal, like Barty, Frances Tiafoe, Roberto Bautista Agut and Stefanos Tsitsipas, who stunned Roger Federer 6-7 (11-13) 7-6 (7-3) 7-5 7-6 (7-5).
A veteran of deep showings at majors, Rafael Nadal found himself in the last eight again by seeing off Tomas Berdych in a surprisingly straightforward 6-0 6-1 7-6 (7-4) win.
Five years ago Barty’s tennis career looked uncertain when she stepped away the sport, weighed down by expectations and all the traveling. She even played cricket for a while.
But Barty and her varied game returned in 2016, and she has made inroads since, sitting at a career-high 15th in the rankings.
“I needed to take that time away,” Barty said. “I feel like I came back a better person on and off the court, a better tennis player. Yeah for me having that 18 months off was vital.”
Barty soaked up the support she received from a packed Rod Laver Arena, which included Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison.
Barty liked atmosphere
“The atmosphere was really unbelievable,” Barty said. “It really was. I have never quite played in Rod Laver when it’s been that full, I think. Especially against a champion like Maria who has proven it time and time again that she can come back from any deficit.
“She’s proven herself in the biggest stages. It’s pleasing.”
Despite also being a former Australian Open champion, sections of the crowd booed Sharapova — who ousted defending champion Caroline Wozniacki on Friday — after she took a lengthy toilet break following the second set and cheered when the 30th seed received a time violation warning in the third.
Quizzed about their reaction, Sharapova replied: “What do you want me to say to that question?”
“I think that’s a silly question to ask,” the 31-year-old followed up.
That third set proved dramatic, although it didn’t seem like it would be the case when Barty led 4-0 and held two break points for 5-0 in Melbourne.
Sharapova, however, stormed back as a tense Barty’s unforced error tally rose and even won what was, arguably, the rally of the tournament at 4-2.
Rally of the tournament
Both players stretched from side to side, with Sharapova — showing the type of variety normally associated with her opponent — striking a wicked backhand slice with side spin, looping backhand, forehand around the net post and last-ditch defensive lob.
She eventually won the point when the 15th seed’s backhand slice sailed wide.
Sharapova clawed back to 3-4 and had all the momentum, holding two break points of her own in the eighth game.
But Barty hung on and converted her fourth match point with an ace to emulate Jelena Dokic’s quarterfinal showing in 2009.
The third set decided proceedings but for Sharapova, the second set proved key.
“At 30-all in the first game, second set, I just didn’t take care of business,” said Sharapova. “I think I took a few steps back. I let her control the points a little bit. Got into longer rallies, which I think off of the backhand she had a great slice out there today.
“That stayed quite low in the conditions. And I didn’t do enough with that ball. I usually like that ball.”
Three more victories and the former junior No. 2 would become the first Australian winner at the Australian Open since Chris O’Neil in 1978.
To reach the last four, Barty will have to defeat a familiar foe, Petra Kvitova. Kvitova — who cruised past 17-year-old Amanda Anisimova 6-2 6-1 — got the better of Barty in a gripping Sydney final about a week ago.
“It’s exciting that I get to have another chance at Petra straightaway,” said Barty. “Not often does that happen where you get to kind of have a replay against the same opponent.”
Twice Wimbledon champion Kvitova last featured in the quarterfinals at Melbourne Park in 2012.
The 35th-ranked Collins made her breakthrough last year in Indian Wells and Miami. She tallied 29 winners against a rudderless Kerber, who had surrendered only two games to the American last year on grass in Eastbourne.
Four years ago here, Berdych thumped Nadal, easily taking the first two sets before a struggle in the third. The pattern was similar Sunday, though this time it was the Spaniard who prevailed against the comeback Czech.
Nadal saved a set point in the third set and claimed the final four points of the tiebreak as Berdych became agitated when the serve clock malfunctioned.
No sets dropped
Despite not playing a tournament since the US Open — as ever for Nadal that was due to injury — the world No. 2 has breezed through four rounds without dropping a set.
On paper Grigor Dimitrov seemed to be a tougher challenger for Nadal in the quarterfinals — he pushed the Mallorcan to five hours in the 2017 semifinals — but the 39th-ranked Tiafoe beat the 20th-seeded Bulgarian 7-5 7-6 (8-6) 6-7 (1-7) 7-5.
How the outcome might have been different had Dimitrov converted one of his three consecutive set points in the second-set tiebreak.
Lagging physically in the latter stages, Tiafoe turned to pickle juice.
Tiafoe’s family moved to the US from Sierra Leone and he learned to play tennis at the tennis center near Washington where his dad served as the custodian.
“I obviously wasn’t a normal tennis story. The beginning of my career, I was playing for them, trying to do everything for my family. Obviously now I put them in a great place,” said Tiafoe, who bought a house for his mom in Maryland and suggested he purchased an apartment for his dad in Florida. “Now I’m trying to do it for me.”
Tiafoe has become a fan favorite in Melbourne because of his post-match celebrations.
But no one, among Australians at least, is a bigger favorite now than Barty.