Sport Linda Pearce: One game at a time, don’t mention luck of the draw to Ash Barty

Linda Pearce: One game at a time, don’t mention luck of the draw to Ash Barty

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If Ash Barty is exactly where she wants to be entering the second week of the Australian Open, then the last place anyone will find her looking now is ahead in the draw.

What she would see?

Dare we say it, but enough for some quiet optimism that the four-decade wait for a home-grown women’s finalist might possibly be about to end.

OK, yes, this is only the fourth round, unseeded American Shelby Rogers will be a tough and worthy opponent, etc, etc.

True, too, is that Saturday’s big dance is still a further two foxtrots away.

And, lest we forget, there is still a vivid memory of semi-final day in 2020, when Barty’s party was rudely crashed by eventual champion Sofia Kenin.

Kenin, though, is already out of the tournament, having admitted her superstition was to check ahead for potential opponents through to the fourth-round stage but crumbling emotionally in match two.

The highest seed left in Barty’s top half is No.5 Elina Svitolina, a fine player, but one yet to reach a grand slam final. (Granted, Svitolina holds a 5-1 record against the Queenslander, but three were back in 2017, and a more seasoned Barty claimed the most recent, at the year-end WTA Finals in 2019.)

The remaining past or present major singles champions are all in the bottom half of the draw, and an absorbing Sunday of outstanding women’s matches on Rod Laver Arena in which Garbine Muguruza. Aryna Sabalenka and Iga Swiatek were eliminated – just – by Naomi Osaka, Serena Williams and Simona Halep, merely served to underline that, on Sunday, the practice court was the safest place to be.

Barty had only a small piece of tape on her left thigh during her session, and the injury was not an issue as she sliced up Ekaterina Alexandrova on Saturday night.

Expect to see more of that crafty, understated backhand weapon against 57th-ranked Rogers, who is also yet to drop a set, and pushed Barty in a tight match in the Yarra Valley Classic lead-up event.

“It’s always exceptionally tough against Shelby,” Barty said.

“She’s got the ability to take the game away from you. She’s got the ability to give you no control out there. And that’s something I’m going to have to try and nullify and neutralise as best I can.

“At times it will be me scrapping and fighting. Other times I will be trying to take the more aggressive option. Other times, sometimes you have to almost dangle a carrot in a way where you tempt her to try and take some risks.

“I’ll have to do that, try all different things, just as I did last week and just as I’ve done every time that I’ve played her.”

Which brings us neatly to another game Barty is enjoying playing – one in which the carrot joined her other nominated vegetables of choice, green beans and brussels sprouts.

At Wimbledon in 2019 it was Disney films, but Barty’s little interview room exercise to casually reference a foodstuff during her post-match media conference has also extended to pepper and prickly pear.

Bagel was a gimme, after her opening 6-0 6-0 trouncing of hapless Danka Kovinic, but, at the pointy end of the tournament, there are unlikely to be many more serves of the latter.

Whatever works to help Barty stay relaxed, though, for the local expectation heading into this tournament was largely her burden alone.

For all Nick Kyrgios’ explosive shot-making and Alex de Minaur’s heart and wheels, Barty was, realistically, the only member of the 23-strong singles squad considered a genuine title contender. And so it proved.

The fact there were so many Australians guaranteed the $100,000 reward for showing up – the figure was 17 last year – was part of the COVID-related reality that all but one of the 16 wildcards ended up in local hands.

Soon enough, though, the biggest second-round presence since 1992 shrivelled to the aforementioned three.

It took some of Dominic Thiem’s finest work to extinguish an on-fire Kyrgios, with just a little bit of help from the Canberran, but a brilliant effort to save two match points against Ugo Humbert in the previous round had already declared it a positive February return after more than a year away.

Despite some handy cameos from Chris O’Connell and Alex Bolt, there was no more encouraging Australian story than Thanasi Kokkinakis’ comeback from his latest injury pause.

Thanasi Kokkinakis wins the fourth set against Stefanos Tsitsipas last Thursday. Photo: AAP

A reminder of the unlucky 24-year-old’s immense talent and competitiveness included pushing Stefanos Tsitsipas to an improbable fifth set on RLA.

Alexei Popyrin, too, underlined his potential with another gritty run at his home slam that he now needs to take on the road.

Then, on silent Saturday night, the reason for de Minaur’s ongoing quest to add more firepower to his game was rudely exposed by Italian Fabio Fognini.

On the flipside, Bernard Tomic rarely fails to disappoint, and last week was no exception.

The fact that he had gone to Doha to qualify and completed a trio of three-setters to earn a main draw spot was cause for a sliver of optimism that a decent effort would be forthcoming at Melbourne Park.

Out early, Bernard Tomic failed to impress. Photo: AAP

But then, with Tomic having benefitted from a first-round retirement, came that stinker against young Canadian star Denis Shapovalov that left his former Davis Cup captain John Fitzgerald, who is one of the genuinely fair and positive voices in the local game, doubting that Tomic would be back next year at Melbourne Park.

The immature retort about Fitzgerald being “the worst commentator I’ve ever seen” came in the same interview where Tomic spoke several times about how he knew what it was like to be “at the top” and “wasn’t really that serious. Maybe if I was, I would have been top 10”.

So squandering your ability is now a source of pride. Good grief.

Shallow also describes Australia’s female stocks, given that, Barty aside, only Ajla Tomljanovic did not require a wildcard leg-up into the main draw.

After chronic foot problems contributed to a rankings slide towards 500, Daria Gavrilova seems headed back towards double figures, and there was no shame in a round-two loss to Barty after forcing a second-set tiebreak.

Tomljanovic has more to regret, having led world No.2 Simona Halep 5-2 in the decider before it all unravelled.

“Unfortunately this one feels like maybe if I don’t wake up tomorrow and force myself to keep going and kind of just put it behind me, it could sting for a while,” Tomljanovic said.

For 36-year-old Sam Stosur, there was relief and satisfaction in winning her first singles match at her home slam since 2015; it may be in a doubles-only capacity that the 2011 US Open champion returns.

Yet although Fed Cup (now Billie Jean King Cup) captain Alicia Molik predicted one of the younger group was due for a breakout moment, only Astra Sharma cleared the first-round hurdle.

For the likes of Maddy Inglis, Lizette Cabrera, Kim Birrell and Destanee Aiava, several savage draws notwithstanding, their time, if it comes, still seems a little while off.

For many, the where-to-from-here question is the most complicated, given the ongoing COVID uncertainty and the unpalatable prospect of needing to complete two weeks of hotel quarantine after returning home from each trip abroad.

Kokkinakis, for example, needs and wants to keep playing, while acknowledging the scheduling complications.

“I’ve got to be ready for a long year of travelling. It’s going to be a bit weird,” the South Australian said.

“Hopefully we do get some crowds back in stadiums. It’s going to make it better for everyone and it’s going to add to the atmosphere and energy of the players and I think it’s going to make for better tennis, as well.”

Tennis Australia has everything tightly crossed that fans will be able to return to Melbourne Park on Thursday.

Women’s semi-final day. Just saying.

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