When the much-lauded American teenager Coco Gauff joined Serena Williams on the outside looking in at the Australian Open, the season’s opening slam entered week two robbed of charisma but still brimming with possibilities, both unlikely and hugely anticipated.
In the latter category, local eyes remain fixed on Ashleigh Barty, the Young Australian Of The Year and world No 1, who survived an alarming form wobble to see off the determined American Alison Riske 6-3, 1-6, 6-4.
Barty’s victory booked a quarter-final on Tuesday against the eighth seed Petra Kvitova, the two-times Wimbledon champion who made the final here a year ago – after beating Barty.
The Australian then defeated her three times in a row in her best-ever season. Now they meet again at the same stage as last year. There will be no clear favourite, as in nearly every match left.
“It was exceptionally hard to play in the wind, especially at one end‚” Barty said immediately afterwards. “I struggled a bit tonight, but worked it out in the end.”
Asked about her quarter-final, she raised a laugh when she replied: “I love Petra but let’s hope she doesn’t break my heart on Tuesday night.”
Kvitova, who arrived in the fourth round having dropped only 14 games – the fewest of anyone in the draw – reminded admirers of her core talent when she overcame a slow start to grind down the exciting young Greek Maria Sakkari, 6-7 (4), 6-3, 6-2.
She said the loud Greek contingent in the crowd had not bothered her at all, adding: “When I was shaking hands with the umpire, I told him it was like a soccer match. It’s nice on one hand. On the other hand, it’s tennis – and it’s not Fed Cup.”
Meanwhile, the draw has been shredded of many seeds, which is never a great look. Certainly it is not an attractive betting medium – in a land where gambling on sport is hardwired.
On another day of quiet carnage, Gauff, the tournament’s youngest player, followed the oldest and most decorated, Williams, out of the door, alongside the defending title-holder, Naomi Osaka – both of whom left on Saturday.
Gauff was philosophical, and still smiling, after her compatriot Sofia Kenin resisted her best efforts to win 6-7 (5), 6-3, 6-0 in just over two hours on Melbourne Arena.
“I had a lot of fun,” she said. “The crowd was really rooting for me. I had a great tournament. I’m looking forward for doubles [on Monday].”
Kenin, cast as the bit player even though 52 places above Gauff in the rankings, said: “I was really happy with the way I was able to handle my emotions and fight through every point. She played such a tough match. She’s really good. She’s 15. Of course, she has a lot of hype. She has a big name. And she’s playing well. I just tried not to let that get the better of me.”
It’s a long way from the grass of Mallorca, where Ons Jabeur had to quit against Kenin in the second set of the second round last year, to the hardcourts of Melbourne, where they meet on Tuesday in the quarter-finals.
Jabeur’s coach, Bertrand Perret, did not exactly exude confidence about his player’s chances. “We will see,” is all he would say by way of prediction. “She’s a very good player. All the players left in the quarter-finals are good. We will see. She has a good chance for revenge. Let’s see.”
In the showpiece evening match Riske, trailing 0-3, also looked like the putative sacrificial lamb – for the first quarter of an hour, at least. The home crowd warmed to the execution.
But the world No 19, a doughty competitor, held and broke back as Barty’s focus slipped. The Australian – who beat five Americans when winning her breakthrough slam at Roland Garros, but then lost a few weeks later to Riske at Wimbledon – eventually snapped out of her mini-torpor to serve for the set at 5-3.
They were playing vastly contrasting tennis, Barty slicing three out of four of her backhands, Riske ripping 71% of her forehands with wicked topspin. When Barty crafted three set points in the ninth game, Riske went for the attacking option once too often and the frame was gone in just over half an hour.
It was a steady rather than dominant set for Barty, although she won 32 of the 56 contested points and hit a couple of aces among her eight clean winners. She was working the baseline assiduously while most of her opponent’s success arrived at or near the net.
Barty reached match point after an hour and 36 minutes and the Rod Laver Arena fell silent as Riske stepped up to send down her second serve. It went long, and the stadium erupted. Barty, who won her first tournament in her own country last weekend in Adelaide, might have to tinker with her game before taking on Kvitova.