The concept of the “hometown hero” has, over the years, been as much albatross as advantage to those who have had the mantle. For every Andy Murray at Wimbledon there has been an Amélie Mauresmo at Roland Garros, players who struggle to perform under the eyes of an expectant nation.
Samantha Stosur was long Australia’s standard bearer and, despite her numerous successes abroad, infamously struggled on home soil—never making it past the fourth round in 19 (and counting) appearances. Heir apparent Ashleigh Barty once fled the sport when the weight of expectation became too much, but throughout her scintillating second career, the Aussie has never shied away from the promise of a partisan crowd.
The world No. 1 was a win away from both a second straight semifinal Down Under and the opportunity to reunite with her public— having had to settle for a virtual audience since the end of the first week— but the empty arena couldn’t rouse Barty out of a sudden dip in form as she bowed out to No. 25 seed Karolina Muchova, 1-6, 6-3, 6-2, in the quarterfinals of the Australian Open.
Barty has been at home since the global pandemic began, opting out of the major opportunities afforded to her fellow players once the tour resumed action over the summer. After 11 months away, she showed no signs of rust in her return, winning the Yarra Valley Classic to ride an eight-match winning streak into the last eight—10 or 11 straight sets, depending on how you feel about the 10-point tie-breaks played in lieu of final sets last week.
Rod Laver Arena erupted when she kicked off her Australian Open campaign in emphatic style, laying down a double-bagel on Danka Kovinic, and she was initially spurred on in kind by the piped-in applause against Muchova, the tournament’s resident escape artist.
"I actually have one memory from here when I was a kid and got my first notebook computer," Muchova recalled after the match. "I put as a wallpaper Rod Laver, the stadium. I was just, like, I hope one day, it would be nice to play there or to look at the arena. Now, yeah, I just won a match and make it to semifinals. It's amazing."
Winning the last seven games of her encounter with countrywoman and quarantine practice partner Karolina Pliskova to reach the second week, Muchova was unable to pull off the same 0-5 comeback against Barty, and soon showed signs of physical struggles—leaving the court for a medical timeout to deal with dizziness early in the second set.
“I started to feel a bit lost by the end of the first set,” Muchova said during her on-court interview. “Ash started very good, making no mistakes, so it was very tough. My head was spinning, so I took a break. They checked my blood pressure and cooled me down a bit with ice.”
Emerging from the break to immediately even the set, the flashy Czech star began to reign in her margins and it was Barty who suddenly lost on the court, making major misses to lose the second set and fall behind a break in the third.
"I felt like I had small windows of opportunity probably midway through the second set and wasn't able to regroup enough to be clear in the third set how I wanted to play," Barty said in her post-match press conference. "I think I just lost my way a little bit, which is disappointing without a doubt.
"I felt like I was in control of the match. I knew how I wanted to go about it, just lost my way a bit."
A big putaway saved one break point at 4-2 but the 2019 Roland Garros champion’s inimitable touch abandoned her in the clutch, netting a forehand to put her fellow 24-year-old a game away from both her first Grand Slam semifinal and first win over a reigning world No. 1.
Opportunities nonetheless abounded for Barty as Muchova served for the match, only for the former Wimbledon quarterfinalist to save three break points—two with outright winners—and earn her first match point when Barty missed off the backhand side.
“It was tough," Muchova said. "It was the first time in this position, so I just tried not to think about it, and only like it was just another ball. I’m happy with how I handled it.”
An ace that followed was politely acknowledged by the “crowd,” and, most improbably, Muchova’s Houdini-esque fortnight will continue against Jennifer Brady, who rallied in similar fashion to oust friend and fellow American Jessica Pegula, 4-6, 6-2, 6-1—with a maiden major final in plain sight.
“I’m just going to try to recover as good as possible.”