MELBOURNE—One great word to describe Australians: playful, be it in their friendly demeanor, the joy they take in nicknames, and also, most meaningful of all amid this high stakes competition, their high regard for the authenticity of sports.
Exhibit A: Ashleigh Barty. Her playful qualities surfaced today moments after her 7-6 (6), 6-2 quarterfinal win over Petra Kvitova. When Jim Courier walked on to the court to conduct a post-match interview for local TV network Channel 9, Barty requested that she instead be allowed to speak with the network’s sideline reporter, her good friend and former doubles partner, Casey Dellacqua.
Courier smoothly stepped aside. In came Dellacqua for a hug and, as they might say here, a bit of a chat. Here, too, the spirit was playful. Dellacqua asked the versatile Barty how she built her game plans. Barty credited her coach, Craig Tyzzer, naturally known as “Tyz.”
She also noted that after winning the WTA’s Coach of the Year Award, Tyzzer “carries his trophy around in his backpack.” The Aussies call this “rubbishing” – which means if you like someone you reserve the right to chide them. “Every time I get an opportunity I'm going to make fun of my team,” said Barty. “That's just a given. We do that on a daily basis.”
But then, Barty also mentioned how prior to each match, Tyzzer gives her a 1,000-word paragraph. “It's in-depth,” she said. “Got a lot of detail. Tyz is very precise in what he has seen from previous matches, what he's looked at into our opponents. Also a little bit of it is just discussion that we have back and forth.”
Kvitova had defeated Barty 6-1, 6-4 at the same stage of the tournament a year ago, but since then Barty had earned a Grand Slam title, reached the No. 1 ranking and also beaten Kvitova three straight times.
If you consider this a battle of silverware, Kvitova was the fork, seeking to stab away with her flat groundstrokes and powerful serve. Barty was the knife, carving and curling her slice backhand, spreading the topspin with her forehand. It all made for a tasty first set, one where Barty likely had to draw on every one of Tyzzer’s words.
As good a point as you’ll ever see came with Kvitova serving at 3-2 in the first set tiebreaker. A tennis lesson all by itself, this 22-ball rally was largely dominated by Kvitova – until it wasn’t. Repeatedly, the Czech pushed Barty into both corners of the court. Fast and resourceful, Barty countered with retrievals, slice backhands and lobs before she was finally able to work her back into an aggressive position with her forehand and extract a Kvitova backhand error.
Said Barty, “I just remember trying to stay alive in the point because I knew it was a big one. A big difference swapping ends at 2-4 than there is at 3-all, just in a sense of trying to keep yourself in touch.”
According to Kvitova, “It was a huge one, for sure. Probably I did everything what I could in that moment…. She was just better in the rally. That’s how it is.”
Though Kvitova went on to hold a set point at 5-6, Barty erased that with an excellent serve down the T, followed up by a splendidly whipped half-volley of a forehand struck from inside the baseline that reached Kvitova so quickly that she could only flail her own forehand long. Two points later, Barty had claimed the set. Said Kvitova, “It was a little bit frustrating after losing the first set.”
From there, Barty mixed prudence and court savvy to take advantage of an opponent who was justifiably discouraged and fatigued. Having committed 21 unforced errors in the first set, Barty made only seven in the second and swiftly captured the first four games of the second.
“She came at me with all guns blazing,” said Barty. “That first set could have gone either way. It was really important to try and get my nose ahead when I could. It was nice to save a set point and get a roll on early in the second set with a couple of quick breaks.”
Barty had become the first Australian woman to reach the semis here since Wendy “Rabbit” Turnbull in 1984. “This is a new experience for me,” said Barty. “I'm just going to try and take it in my stride, learn as much as I can and go from there.”
Next up is Slam semi newcomer, American Sofia Kenin. Barty holds a 5-1 lead, and took three of four last season, including their most recent meeting, a 6-3, 7-5 victory in Wuhan last fall. “She's an exceptional competitor,” said Barty. “Loves to put herself out there, test herself on the biggest stage. Have played her a number of times now, with some results going both ways. She has a great knack of controlling the court from the center of the court and being that first-strike player. It's going to be important for me to try and nullify that if I can.”
And yet, for all the talk around Barty and the hopes of a nation, she knows she is not so much working as playing. This is a woman who travels with a cricket bat and a football. “We make up stupid games,” said Barty. “It gets a bit out of hand.”
All that play fuels Barty’s extremely relaxed manner, seemingly making it easy for her to handle the challenges of competition and absorb Tyzzer’s pre-match game plan. Pressure? Leave all the angst to such emotionally challenged competitors as her compatriot, Nick Kyrgios.
But even Kyrgios can see what makes Barty exceptional. Asked if she can cope with the many expectations surrounding her effort here, Kyrgios was quite clear about her in a way he struggles for with himself. “One hundred percent,” said Kyrgios. “ She's a Grand Slam champion. She's been dealing with expectation for as long as I've known. She was killing it in juniors, then she stepped away from the game to sort her life out, her mind out. Then she came back and she's killing it.”