On the day she was announced as Young Australian of the Year, Ashleigh Barty’s road to the Australian Open title started looking clearer and easier.
Barty’s doubles campaign ended on Saturday, but more top seeds fell at Melbourne Park, blowing open Barty’s side of the draw and giving her a clear shot to take her first major on home soil.
World No.2 Karolina Pliskova and sixth seed Belinda Bencic joined 2019 champion Naomi Osaka and seven-time winner Serena Williams on the Open scrap heap with shock third-round exits.
Elevated to outright favourite to break Australia’s 42-year Open title drought, Barty’s highest-ranked obstacle in her path to the final is world No.7 Petra Kvitova, while the bottom half of the draw has is also wide open.
Named Young Australian of the Year for her exploits on and off the court, the indigenous Queenslander was lauded with her leadership.
“Ash Barty is the world’s number one tennis player, a champion athlete and an extraordinary young woman doing our nation proud,” the chair of the National Australia Day Council, Danielle Roche said in the official announcement.
Her achievements are inspiring young Australians to follow their dreams.”
After finding out she had won the award, Barty told former world No.1 Pat Rafter – who was Australian of the Year in 2002 – that she thought it “bizarre”.
“For me, my family, my team, we’re just trying to do the best that we can every single day,” she said.
“To be Young Australian of the Year is unbelievable. Very, very humbling. I don’t think I’m deserving of it but, yeah, I’m just trying to be me.”
Barty broke through for her first major at the French Open in 2019 and has served as the National Indigenous Tennis Ambassador for Tennis Australia.
“All of my values that I’ve lived by and try to live by every single day, regardless of whether it’s in sport … all come from mum and dad,” Barty said.
It’s about being humble and respectful, and giving it a crack – trying to be the best you can be, and that’s all you can ask of yourself.”
She urged young people to be their authentic selves and said her latest prize is going to sit high on her mantelpiece.
Back at Melbourne Park, the local hope took her doubles loss in her stride and looked forward to a big second week.
Wimbledon champion Simona Halep avoided joining the exodus of big-name stars with a stress-free 6-1 6-4 win on Saturday over Yulia Putintseva to emerge as the finals favourite from the depleted bottom half.
Russian Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova snapped a run of six-straight defeats to Pliskova to end the big-serving Czech’s campaign with a shock 7-6 (7-4) 7-6 (7-3) win on Rod Laver Arena in the day’s first big upset.
Bencic bombed out in a 6-0 6-1 capitulation at the hands of Estonia’s Anett Kontaveit.
For her part, and with the doubles competition no longer an issue, Barty can now focus exclusively on her pursuit of Australian Open singles glory, with French nemesis Kristina Mladenovic ending her doubles assault at Melbourne Park.
Mladenovic teamed with Hungary’s Timea Babos on Saturday to beat Barty and German Julia Goerges 7-5 6-4 in the second round.
In the singles, Barty faces an intriguing fourth-round return bout against Alison Riske on Sunday after the American had eliminated Barty last year at Wimbledon.
“Obviously, it was a great memory for me. It was my first career (grand slam) quarter-final after winning that,” Riske said.
“It was a really special match for me. I played my game, I looked to impose myself on her and it was good enough that day.”
Riske has climbed from 55th to No.19 in the world since stunningly snapping Barty’s 15-match European winning streak that featured French Open glory and her ascent to world No.1 for the first time.
“It’s going to be a different experience. I’m playing on her home turf. I expect the fans against me, as they should be,” the underdog said.
“But, yeah, look, I’m going to have to ignore the crowd and try to be in my own head, so I think that will be the focus.
I’m excited for it, honestly. It’s a rare experience that, at a grand slam, you play someone necessarily from the home country.
“So I’m definitely looking forward to it and it’s going to be a battle.”
The winner will play seventh seed Petra Kvitova, in what would be a quarter-final rematch for Barty after losing to the Czech left-hander last year, or Greece’s Maria Sakkari on Tuesday.
Pavlyuchenkova moves on to play Angelique Kerber for a quarter-final spot. Germany’s 2016 champion and former world No.1 continued her quiet progression through the draw with a hard-fought 6-2 6-7 (4-7) 6-3 win over Italian Camila Giorgi.
Eyeing her her first grand slam quarter-final, Kontaveit faces Iga Swiatek on Monday, with the unheralded Pole ousting Croatian 19th seed Donna Vekic 7-5 6-3.
Popyrin falls, but Nadal train still on track
Daniil Medvedev moved into the fourth round of the Australian Open with a comprehensive straight sets win over Australian Alexei Popyrin.
The Russian fourth seed was too strong for the youngster, who appeared to be carrying a leg injury at times, winning 6-4 6-3 6-2.
He’ll now take on three-time grand slam champion Stan Wawrinka for a place in the quarter-finals after his opponent American John Isner retired from their match at 6-4 4-1.
Russian Andrey Rublev also looms as an Australian Open dark horse after continuing his unbeaten streak in 2020 with an upset third-round win.
The 22-year-old rising star knocked out Belgian 11th seed David Goffin 2-6 7-6 (7-3) 6-4 7-6 (7-4) and will next play German young gun Alexander Zverev.
The seventh seed produced a convincing 6-2 6-2 6-4 victory over Spanish veteran Fernando Verdasco on Margaret Court Arena.
Zverev is yet to drop a set during the first three rounds at the Open and says he’s as “happy as I’ve ever been on court”.
Earlier, French 10th seed Gael Monfils defeated Latvian qualifier Ernests Gulbis 7-6 (7-2) 6-4 6-3.
Monfils will battle Dominic Thiem next after the Austrian fifth seed took care of American Taylor Fritz 6-2 6-4 6-7 (5-7) 6-4.
“We had great matches already,” Thiem said of his next outing. “(He’s) such a great entertaining player, always great rallies against him.
World No.1 Rafael Nadal demolished fellow Spaniard Pablo Carreno Busta 6-1 6-2 6-4.
“My best match of the tournament so far without a doubt,” Nadal said.
“(The preparation’s) been a little bit different than other times, but just happy to be playing again in this amazing stadium in front of this great crowd that always supports.”
Life ban for Souza after corruption charges proven
Brazilian Joao Souza has been banned from tennis for life after being convicted of multiple match-fixing and other corruption offences.
A Tennis Integrity Unit (TIU) investigation found the 31-year-old had committed several anti-corruption breaches from 2015-19 including fixing matches at ATP Challenger and ITF Futures tournaments in Brazil, Mexico, the United States and Czech Republic.
The TIU said Souza had not reported corrupt approaches, had failed to cooperate with their inquiry, including destroying evidence, and “solicited other players to not use best efforts” in matches.
Souza, reaching a career-high singles ranking of 69 in 2015, has dropped to 742 in the world. As a doubles player, he achieved his highest ranking of 70 in January 2013.
Coming up on Sunday …
1-Ashleigh Barty (AUS) v 18-Alison Riske (USA)
Fresh off a dominant win over Kazakh Elena Rybakina, Barty confronts a potential speed-bump in the 18th-seeded American. The top seed will be understandably wary of Riske after losing their only previous clash at Wimbledon last year in the wake of her French Open triumph.
7-Petra Kvitova (CZE) v 22-Maria Sakkari (GRE)
Sakkari upset the two-time Wimbledon champion twice last year and is riding a wave of history as the first Greek woman to make the fourth round of a major since Eleni Daniilidou in 2005. But the Czech has been in hot form thus far, dropping just 14 games through her opening three matches.
32-Milos Raonic (CAN) v Marin Cilic (CRO)
Fans can expect a fair bit of firepower as these former Wimbledon finalists lock horns. Cilic and Raonic have lent on their destructive serves over the first week at Melbourne Park, firing down 50 and 47 aces respectively.
2-Novak Djokovic (SRB) v 14-Diego Schwartzman (ARG)
Seven-time champion Djokovic has barely raised a sweat since dropping a set to German giant Jan-Lennard Struff in the first round. That’s set to change against Schwartzman. Despite holding a 3-0 career record over the diminutive Argentine, history says Djokovic won’t have it all his way as he seeks an 11th quarter-finals berth at Melbourne Park.
Coco Gauff (USA) v 14-Sofia Kenin (USA)
The American teen sensation will be looking to add another seed to her growing list of scalps after ending Naomi Osaka’s title defence. But 14th seed Kenin is no slouch, having yet to drop a set this tournament.