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 in 2020, 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 last 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.
On Monday evening, the Queenslander booked her place in the quarterfinals with a comfortable 6-3, 6-4 win against unseeded American Shelby Rogers, extending her unbeaten run on home soil in 2021 to nine matches. Barty’s loss to Kenin at last year’s Australian Open is her only defeat in Australia over her past 20 matches played here.
Barty showed Rogers why she has the No. 1 seeding next to her name, sending out an ominous warning to the remaining women in the draw with a combination of slices mixed in with baseline power and jaw-dropping defence.
“It’s exciting to be through to another quarterfinal,” Barty said after the match. “I just love being at home, I love being in Australia and I love being able to share this with all my friends and family as well.”
The only meeting between the Barty and Muchova came in the third round of the 2018 US Open, with Barty winning 6-3, 6-4.
As expected, Barty is already a heavy favourite with bookmakers to defeat the Czech and win through to the Australian Open semifinals for the second straight year. Should she progress, her last four tie would be against either 22nd seed Jennifer Brady or fellow American Jessica Pegula.
The draw has been opening up more and more for Barty with each passing day. Reigning champion Kenin and 2019 US Open winner Bianca Andreescu, who were on Barty’s side of the draw, both exited the tournament in week one after shock second round defeats.
On Day 6, sixth seed Karolina Pliskova and 11th seed Belinda Bencic bowed out of the tournament, leaving Barty and world No. 5 Elina Svitolina as the only top 15 ranked players in the top half of the draw.
But with Pegula upsetting Svitolina early on Day 8, it’s put Barty in an almighty position to progress to the final of her home Slam. It’s a similar opportunity to the one she was presented with last year, but failed to capitalise on.
Meanwhile, on the other half of the draw, Serena, Osaka, world No. 2 Simona Halep and the crafty Hsieh Su-wei will battle it out for the other spot in Saturday’s final.
Of the four women remaining on Barty’s half of the draw, the Australian is the only one to have previously reached a Slam quarterfinal. In fact, there is just one major title between the quarterfinal quartet on Barty’s side, as opposed to a staggering 28 on the other.
There’s no doubt which side of the draw Barty would prefer to be on. Can she take advantage?