Ashleigh Barty overcame one of the tour’s most dangerous hard-court players in straight sets on Saturday to continue her charge toward winning her home Grand Slam.
Even with no crowd behind her because of Melbourne’s lockdown and sporting strapping to her left leg once again, the world No.1 advanced to the fourth round with a 6-2 6-4 win over Ekaterina Alexandrova.
Barty still needs to tally four more victories to become the first Aussie to triumph at the Australian Open since Chris O’Neil in 1978, but Saturday’s performance is bound to give the Ipswich native a dose of confidence.
While Alexandrova is still bidding for a maiden Grand Slam fourth round, the flat-hitting Russian has posted more than 50 hard-court wins since the start of 2019 — including against Simona Halep, Iga Swiatek, Kim Clijsters and Caroline Wozniacki.
And when she grabbed an early 2-0 lead, one wondered if the world No.32 would collect another huge scalp.
Alexandrova light-heartedly said heading into the encounter that Barty’s varied style was “not particularly my favourite style to play against”, yet ripped a stunning forehand crosscourt winner off a backhand slice down the line in the second game.
However, Barty continued to stick with her game — changing the trajectory on her forehand, using short angles and dragging the 26-year-old forward — to turn the set around. Struggling with her first serve in the opening stages, that picked up, too.
Her movement into the corners appeared unhindered, and if fans had been around on Margaret Court Arena, they surely would have gasped in awe of Barty’s backhand slice winner down the line in the eighth game.
“Feels good,” Barty said of her leg. “Felt like it didn't affect me at all today. It won't affect me at all. I'll be ready to go no matter what.”
Barty and partner Jennifer Brady pulled out of the doubles but the trainer visited Alexandrova, not Barty, at the end of the first set for an apparent stomach injury.
After winning six straight games to seal the opener, Barty temporarily hit a road block in the second set, broken for 2-3.
But a hold to love served as the springboard for a break for 4-4. It was a crushing blow for Alexandrova, since she saved five break points only to see Barty convert on No.6 by powering a cross-court forehand that forced an error.
Alexandrova missed a game point at 5-4 and paid the price as great defensive work from Barty set up a match point.
Barty duly ripped a drive volley winner to advance and set up a clash with Shelby Rogers — who she topped on the same court last week — after the American defeated in-form Estonian Anett Kontaveit.
Barty described playing in the empty stadium as “very strange” after the match.
"It changes the sound of the court a little bit,” she explained.
“Something I’ve never experienced before ever in my life, so it’s very strange.
"We had to have a bit of a chat about it with my team obviously just to prepare and try to be ready for anything, but I didn’t want it to affect the way I played tonight. I didn’t want it to affect how I went about my business.”
The Australian said using her slice was a key part of her wresting control of the match from Alexandrova in the second set.
“I think sometimes I love to overuse it, but it was certainly something I wanted to implement a lot tonight just to try and change the tempo of the match," she said.
"Get it back on my terms a little bit, and then hopefully it brings me some forehands as well.”