Australia’s Ashleigh Barty has been rising steadily through the ranks of the WTA over the past few seasons, both on the singles and the doubles court. In an era increasingly dominated by big-hitters or athletic counter-punchers, Barty has charted her own path towards the top, which included a hiatus from tennis in favour of playing cricket, relying on superb hands and impressive tactical awareness to outmanoeuvre and outfox her opponents.
She has amassed no shortage of impressive wins already in her young career. The most recent was a straight-sets demolition of World #1 Simona Halep at the Sydney International where she reached the final, losing narrowly to two-time Wimbledon champion Petra Kvitova. She has also found remarkable success in doubles, winning the US Open last season partnered with Coco Vandeweghe, defeating second seeds Timea Babos and Kristina Mladenovic in the final.
But a statement run in singles at a Grand Slam has continued to elude her, with the 22-year-old yet to go beyond the fourth round at any of the sport’s four most illustrious tournaments. But now, in some of the best form of her career and sure to be backed to the hilt by the crowd as the last Australian standing in either singles draw, could be the moment to change that. Standing between her and a place in the last eight, however, is Maria Sharapova.
The Russian won the title at Melbourne Park in 2008 and has looked in fearsome form so far this year. She began her tournament by hammering British qualifier Harriet Dart 6-0 6-0 and barely let up in the second round either with a 6-1 6-2 win over Rebecca Peterson of Sweden. She backed that up by accounting for defending champion and World #3 Caroline Wozniacki, edging one of the matches of the tournament so far 6-4 4-6 6-3.
Certainly not the ideal opponent to try and win one’s first round of 16 match at a Major against then. But there is reason to be hopeful for Barty. She too has made swift progress through the draw, winning all three of her matches in straight sets, including against the dangerous Maria Sakkari of Greece. And though she lost her only previous match against Sharapova, that defeat came in the first round at the Italian Open on clay, a surface Barty has yet to entirely come to grips with.
Despite that, she took Sharapova the distance before falling to a 5-7 6-3 2-6 defeat. Her all-court attacking style should prove much more difficult for the former World #1 to cope with on the quicker courts at the Australian Open. Indeed, Barty should be able to unsettle Sharapova by giving her a variety of looks and refusing to engage in the sort of baseline hitting-contests Sharapova so often dominates.
Sharapova is also more vulnerable than she looks at the Australian Open, despite her impressive start to the tournament. This would not be the first time that Sharapova has failed to build on an impressive start at a grand slam by losing early in the second week. She has not reached the last four at a Grand Slam since Wimbledon in 2015 and has made just two quarterfinals since. The only win she has scored in the second week at a Major since her comeback from her doping ban was by walkover at the French Open.
Sharapova will not be unaware of that. If Barty can make a quick start and bring the Rod Laver Arena crowd into the match, Sharapova’s confidence could be dealt a serious blow. Of course, even should Barty get past Sharapova, Kvitova is her most likely quarterfinal opponent and Angelique Kerber and Sloane Stephens lurk as potential semifinal opponents. But at some point, if Barty wants to continue her rise up the rankings, these are the matches she needs to start winning.
And there really is no time quite like the present.