Barty and Australia have their day, as Ash finally fends off Ali Riske

Barty and Australia have their day, as Ash finally fends off Ali Riske

The world No. 1 beat the American for the first time in three chances, 6-3, 1-6, 6-4, to reach the quarterfinals in Melbourne.

MELBOURNE—Matchups are the greatest thing going in tennis. But maybe, particularly since this is Australia Day, don’t tell first-seeded Ashleigh Barty how it feels to ponder facing the woman she barely beat this evening, 18th-seeded Alison Riske

In their only two previous matches, Riske had won, including a victory last summer in the round of 16 at Wimbledon. They met at the same stage tonight, inside Rod Laver Arena. Perhaps the home crowd was what, at last, helped Barty earn her first win over the American, a 96-minute effort with the unusual score of 6-3, 1-6, 6-4. 

Aiding Barty’s cause were a series of sweet forehands she hit late in the third set—necessary needle-threading against an extremely fit, dogged and intelligent opponent. Against a great many players, Barty’s mix of slice backhands and flat forehands creates discomfort. 

“She definitely does a lot of things that are abnormal,” said Riske. “I do enjoy playing against her.” 

As evidenced by her many fine results on grass, Riske prefers these kind of low-bouncing balls, drives that allow her to strike the ball more firmly than she does against players who hit with more topspin than Barty.

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Added to this is the A+ grade Riske gets for the hustle factor. A Riske match is a highlight reel of pluck and spark: impressive scrambles, late swings that hit the lines and clip the net (two in one rally tonight), intermittent drop shots and sharp sorties to the net (12 of 17 versus Barty). 

“Alison is not just a tough opponent for me, she's a tough opponent for every single girl on the tour,” said Barty. “She has the ability to adapt her game, to make the opponent uncomfortable. I think she's got a great tennis brain of problem solving, as well.”

With Riske serving at 0-3, 30-40 in the first set, all seemed on course for Barty. But when Riske lunged to track down a snappy service return, Barty lined her approach into the net. On another break point, Riske hit a 100 M.P.H. ace down the T. Riske held, broke serve, but was then broken again to give Barty a 4-2 lead. Showing off her own fitness and exceptional versatility, Barty drew on her entire portfolio—slice, drive, topspin, volley—to at last close out the first set in 34 minutes. 

But the wheels came off rapidly for Barty in the second. Serving at 0-1, 30-15, a missed forehand, double-fault and unforced error off the backhand handed Riske the break.

The old Melbourne saying about the weather—“four seasons in a day”—surfaced, most notably in the form of a chilly breeze less akin to the Australian and more like Eastbourne, the seaside British town where Riske had earned her other win over Barty. 

“It was very up and down from both of us,” said Riske, who in just 27 minutes—aided by 12 unforced errors from Barty—leveled the match.

According to Barty, “It was important to try and hold and stay and fight for every point from the end where you were against the wind, and make the most of it when you were with the wind.”

But the conditions caught Riske off-balance as well. 

“I don’t think I handled it very well,” Riske said about the decisive set. “I didn’t take the time I needed to take when I probably needed it.”

Amidst it all, they both surged and stumbled. Barty went up 4-1, then Riske scraped back for 4-all. For the second night in a row, a nation watched and worried as its native hopeful labored. Last night it had been Kyrgios, who can infuriate but captivate. This evening it was Barty, who never loses her cool but was struggling in the chill. 

On the first point of the 4-all game, Barty came with a slick inside-in forehand winner. Next, an emphatic 105 M.P.H. service winner down the T. At 30-love, a crackling wide serve to that opened up the court for a forceful down-the-line forehand. Barty held for 5-4.

On the first point of the next game, Riske made a strategic miscue, opting to approach to the Barty forehand rather than the weaker backhand. Barty lined a forehand pass down the line. Persistent to the last drop, Riske went ahead 30-15. And then events went all too swiftly. 

Pulled off the court by an angled Riske forehand, Barty responded with a forehand moonball, deep down the middle. All Riske could do was reply with a flail that landed near the service line, giving Barty the chance to pound an inside-out forehand that elicited an error. At 30-all, Riske netted a makeable backhand volley. Match point down and disaster for Riske: a double-fault. 

“She played big,” said Riske. 

No matter if you’re at the park or at a major, the first win over someone is always deeply meaningful. 

“It was just about adapting and trying to work through it as best as you can,” said Barty.

Barty next plays the woman who beat her in the quarterfinals here last year, 2019 Australian Open finalist Petra Kvitova. That was Kvitova’s fourth win over Barty in four tries. Since then, Barty has won three straight over the Czech, including a 6-4, 6-2 victory last year at the WTA Finals. 

“It’s never an easy match,” Barty said about Kvitova. 

The versatile Aussie versus the powerful lefty. Once again, the joy of a compelling matchup.