Day 7 preview: The next chapter

  • Vivienne Christie

There’s always at least one feel-good story as a Grand Slam edges towards its pointy end. As fourth-round matches commence on Day 7, there are many of them at Australian Open 2019.

From the exhilarating return to form of Petra Kvitova in the women’s draw to the dazzling arrival of Stefanos Tsitsipas and his singing supporters on the men’s side, Melbourne Park is abuzz with positive talking points. 

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It’s unlikely, though, that any players have captured the imagination quite like Ashleigh Barty and Frances Tiafoe.

Entertaining fans with her creative shot-making on the court and delighting them with her down-to-earth nature off it, Barty is lighting up her home Grand Slam. Following a first fourth-round appearance at the US Open last September, the Queenslander has discovered it’s even more special to replicate that career-best performance in Melbourne.

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“It’s absolutely phenomenal,” said Barty, after she recorded her third straight-sets victory of the tournament over Maria Sakkari under the closed roof of Rod Laver Arena on Friday. “To hear all the Aussies out here, it’s unbelievable.”

As more and more of those supporters catch on to the Australian’s compelling style and personality, they’re thankful that her brief break from the sport was only temporary. Since her return from a period playing state-level cricket in 2016, Barty has discovered a new joy in her tennis. Already that passion has helped her claim three titles from six WTA finals – and now she’ll work to channel that passion into a first career win over Maria Sharapova.

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Barty’s only other meeting with the former world No.1 was in Rome last year, where Sharapova claimed a hard-fought three-set victory. “It's just an opportunity for me to go and test myself against the best,” said the Australian.

After eliminating defending champion Caroline Wozniacki in a third-round epic, Sharapova appreciates that her fourth-round opponent will be equally challenging.  “I think her story is phenomenal,” said the Russian, proving she’s been following Barty’s rise as closely as anyone.

“She loves playing here. Did extremely well last week (as runner-up) in Sydney, but just overall has been so consistent. I know she took a little break from the game and then just resurged and (has) been doing incredibly well.”

Tiafoe is also building electrifying momentum. Consecutive standout wins over Kevin Anderson (the No.5 seed) and Andreas Seppi have earned the American a maiden appearance in a Grand Slam fourth round, and Tiafoe is enjoying every moment of his breakthrough.

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“(It’s) quite a lot of fun for me,” he said after his three-hour, 17-minute win over Seppi. “Definitely hurts, very tired right now. But, yeah, it's unbelievable.”

Armed with a powerful serve and a fearless approach, Tiafoe is also showcasing the mindset required to challenge fourth-round opponent Grigor Dimitrov. “I’m just taking it,” he said. “I'm taking the game to the guys. I'm playing very aggressive, trying to put things in my terms. Also, I'm competing really well, staying in the rallies. Not bailing out. Going point in, point out.”

Dimitrov describes Tiafoe as one of the most likeable men on tour. “Great guy. We have always a lot of fun with him in the locker room. Everybody loves him,” said the Bulgarian.

In their second career meeting, however, there’ll be no such room for niceties. “He's been playing really well, especially beginning of the year, been having good results,” said Dimitrov, who required three sets to get past Tiafoe last year in Canada. 

“He's going to be dangerous to play. He's going to be excited. It's a new ground for him. So, yeah, I don't expect it to be an easy match at all.”

If a test of maturity is what’s required for Tiafoe to upset the AO2017 semifinalist, the timing couldn’t be better: Sunday is also the American’s 21st birthday.

Meanwhile, Kvitova targets a ninth straight win on Australian soil as she faces Amanda Anisimova. Still just 17 years old, the teenager upset the two-time Wimbledon champion in their only other match at Indian Wells last season.

Roger Federer also faces a difficult fourth-round opponent in his first match at this level against Tsitsipas. While the six-time and defending Australian Open champion describes his recent Melbourne result as a fairytale, he knows that others too are scripting their own enchanting stories.