Barty, for the country
Ashleigh Barty is now two wins away from a historical title in Melbourne. She will be the massive favorite in her semi-finals against Sofia Kenin, unless the feisty American keeps her ice-cold will power.
Ashleigh Barty became the first Australian woman to qualify for the semi-finals of the event since Wendy Turnbull in 1984. And she’s now two matches won away from being the first Aussie champion here since Chris O’Neil in 1978. And yet all she did after clinching the victory (7-6(2), 6-2) against Petra Kvitova was to smile and send a discrete fist pump to her box. That’s the Barty way: even when she won Roland-Garros last year, she let others party for her. And she has way too much sympathy and respect for Kvitova to put her own joy in her face. Finally, Barty is not there to be into the semi-finals but to win it all so until it’s done, there will be no over the top joy.
On Tuesday, she found a way to survive the Kvitova storm in the first set, before keeping her head cold whereas the Czech was losing it. Kvitova started like a wonder but had her first bad miss while being up a break a 2-1: she gave an early confidence boost to Barty instead of keeping the stress on. She was the won hitting the spectacular winners, but also the one to make the mistakes. There was no way to beat the ever so solid Barty with 38 unforced errors in two sets, even with 28 winners (28-20 for Barty).
The Australian had lost twice in a Grand Slam against the Czech (Roland-Garros 2012, AO 2019) but when Kvitova isn’t zoning and hitting winners all over the place, putting Barty’s footwork and creativity down, she actually doesn’t stand a chance. Not against a player who seems on a mission, in a perfect mindset and who is playing such smart tennis. Barty wasn’t flashy today but she didn’t need to: she needed to be a wall, she needed to focus on her serve and on moving Kvitova, she needed to hang in there until Petra self-destruct. She did all that, and so is keeping Australia’s hope alive.
Kenin had actually a similar match against Ons Jabeur (6-4, 6-4), and proved why she shouldn’t be underestimated in the battle against Barty. The 21 years old and World No. 15 doesn’t do anything that can be defined as the wow factor. She’s not the tallest, not the strongest, not the golden hands. But gosh she is tough as nails, so quick on her feet and so tough to break down. The Moscow-born American reminds us of Vera Zvonareva: she can sulk, she can complain, she’s always going to yell out of joy, stress or anger but in the end, she’s the ultimate competitor. A ball of energy. The definition of the fighting spirit.
On Tuesday, she didn’t care about Ons Jabeur’s incredible skills and sense of the game. She cared only about keeping that break up, kicking and screaming, at 5-4 in the first set and to do the same in the second by putting all those balls back in the best possible angles, with the best possible length and to stick to her game plan to move Jabeur wide on the sides. Everything else: the stakes, the quality of the rival, a crowd that hadn’t fully arrived yet, all of this could go through the window. Exactly like in her fourth round against Coco Gauff: she saw the hype and destroyed the hype.
Today, only a Jabeur in a magician form could have derailed the Kenin train, but with 36 unforced errors (for 34 winners) it was never going to happen. Kenin with 16 mistakes and 14 winners proved that steady beats flashy when flashy goes awry. And if one struggles to be fascinated by Kenin’s game, one will have to be by the size of her heart. That kid is fearless. And that’s how you build a career. Between Kenin and Barty, it will be a chess game, a guts game, a full-on battle. On paper, that’s not a blockbuster, but on the court it really could turn into one.