Ash Barty has showcased her fighting qualities on an extraordinary day of pre-Australian Open tennis at Melbourne Park. After a near year-long hiatus, Australia’s world No 1 advanced to the quarter-finals in her first tournament back with a 6-0, 4-6, 6-3 victory over dogged Czech Marie Bouzkova.
Barty’s gritty win sent a reminder to her rivals on the eve of Thursday night’s Open draw and on a day of unprecedented women’s talent on display. The world’s top six female players, as well as 23-times grand slam winner Serena Williams, former Open champions Victoria Azarenka and Angelique Kerber and French Open titleholder Iga Swiatek were all on show.
Never before, not even at the Open, have fans been treated to so much class on the one day, with grand slam draws splitting the world’s elite stars into two halves of the draw.
But the Covid-19 pandemic has forced officials into a complete re-think, with six tournaments running concurrently at Melbourne Park to allow competitors as much court time as possible before Monday’s start to the Open.
Nineteen Australians were in action on Wednesdaybut all eyes were on Barty as the world No 1 continued her comeback after not being sighted on tour since a semi-final loss to Petra Kvitova last February. She did not disappoint, surviving a stern two-hour test of her nerve to progress to the last eight of the Yarra Valley Classic.
After shaking off some rust in a three-set exhibition loss to world No 2 Simona Halep in Adelaide and then blowing off more cobwebs with a straight-sets win over Ana Bogdan in her tournament opener, Barty was forced to dig deep on Wednesday.
The 24-year-old breezed through the opening set without dropping a game, then recovered from losing the second and retained her cool in a topsy-turvy deciding set to prevail. The top seed said it was not easy backing up from her match against Bogdan on Tuesday night.
“I’m an early riser so I didn’t get a hell of a lot of sleep last night,” Barty said. “But it’s fantastic to be back out here. It was a really solid match.” Barty will play American Shelby Rogers in the last eight and could potentially face Williams in the semi-finals.
Elsewhere in Melbourne there were mixed fortunes for the British contingent. Dan Evans, the British men’s No 1, progressed to the third round of the Murray River Open with a straight sets victory over Pedro Sousa as the world No 33 began his campaign before the Australian Open. The eighth seed, who received a bye in the first round, dispatched the 108th-ranked Portuguese 6-3, 7-5 at Melbourne Park, where he will next meet Marcos Giron.
Johanna Konta and Katie Boulter both started strongly before being overcome by their opponents in three sets in the third round of the Gippsland Trophy. The fifth seed Konta was defeated 4-6, 7-6 (10), 7-6 (4) by Irina-Camelia Begu, with the world No 79 pushing the Briton for three-and-a-half hours.
Boulter, ranked at 371 after a lengthy spell out with a back injury in 2019 and playing at just her second WTA event in close to two years, stunned the 14th seed Coco Gauff the day before. But second seed Naomi Osaka offered something else, winning 68% of her first-serve points while Boulter had seven double faults en route to a 3-6, 6-3, 6-1 loss.
Heather Watson made an early exit at the Grampians Trophy as she lost 6-2, 6-2 in her opening-round match against the 36th-ranked Russian Veronika Kudermetova. Watson only left hotel quarantine on Friday and said before the tournament she was “not putting a lot of pressure on myself” as she focuses on the Australian Open.