Ash Barty has staged a stunning turnaround in the biggest match of her career, beating five-time major champion Maria Sharapova to reach her first Grand Slam quarterfinal.
After dropping the first set, 15th seed Barty scored a thrilling 4-6 6-1 6-4 victory – capped by a dramatic final game – at Rod Laver Arena on Sunday afternoon.
She becomes just the fourth Australian female quarterfinalist at Melbourne Park, and the first since Jelena Dokic made a run to the last eight in 2009.
Next up for Barty is two-time Wimbledon champion Petra Kvitova, in what is a rematch of last week's enthralling Sydney International final, won by Kvitova in a third-set tiebreak.
"She (Sharapova) is an absolute champion – she was never going to go away. So I knew that I just had to keep chipping away,” Barty said. "I know that I can match it with the best, and when I execute I know that I can.
"This is unreal – playing on this beautiful court in front of a packed house, there's nothing better.”
The Sharapova versus Barty clash was, naturally, highly anticipated in Australia. But it also garnered plenty of interest among the wider tennis community, given it pitted a superstar against a player who is making an increasing impact on the international stage. Barty was expected to rise to a new career-high of No.14 regardless of the outcome on Sunday – and higher still if she could take out Sharapova.
Another attractive element was the extreme stylistic contrast this match-up presented. Good luck finding two women who approach the game more differently. Up one end was the Russian, towering at 188cm tall, extremely vocal on court and belting the ball with flat, almost metronomic power. At the other was the Australian, almost nine inches shorter, and noiselessly executing an array of spins, angles, lengths and shape on her shots.
It was that variation that brought up a break point for Barty in the eighth game, after the Aussie worked the ball around and ended the rally with a searing forehand winner. Yet she couldn’t convert that, or a second, and Sharapova escaped with a hold to level at 4-4.
It formed part of a three-game run for Sharapova, who suddenly looked to have figured Barty out. When the Queenslander went hard and heavy with her forehand into Sharapova’s forehand, the Russian fired it back with interest. When Barty knifed her slice backhand, Sharapova simply got down low and rolled it back deep.
Sharapova had the first set yet Barty stopped the run of games with a much-needed hold to open the second set.
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It felt like Barty was barely hanging on against the relentless Sharapova until an untimely double fault at 30-30 in the fourth game by the Russian, followed by a limp backhand into the net. That earned Barty a break and a 3-1 lead.
The Aussie streaked through nine straight games as Sharapova’s game went completely awry.
Leading 4-0 in the final set, Barty tightened slightly at just the moment Sharapova stopped missing and rediscovered her intensity. Suddenly she’d closed the gap to 3-4, and looked set to level scores when she went up 15-40 in the eighth game.
This was precisely the moment it looked like the seasoned champ would get on top of the Grand Slam second-week novice. But Barty, impressively, saved both of those break points before firing a huge serve en route to a hold for 5-3.
Another challenge was to come against the gritty Sharapova, who held in the ninth game to force Barty to serve it out.
Rod Laver Arena erupted when they thought Barty had slotted an ace on match point, but it was called out, and when the din quietened, Barty double faulted. Another match point came and went, before the Australian finally clinched victory with an ace.
"I gave myself opportunities in the third set in a lot of games and just couldn't take it. Just had to take a deep breath and trust the work that I've done with my team,” Barty said. "Go up and hit my spots, and whatever happens, happens.”