A lot of people predicted Ash Barty would play Naomi Osaka in the Australian Open’s last 16. Barty was not one of them. “That was your expectation,” she told press after Osaka fell to Amanda Anisimova. “My expectation was whoever it would be.”
Barty’s expectation is in close alignment with her memory, and her memory is of being one set and three games down against a 17-year-old Anisimova the semi-final at Roland Garros in 2019.
“I remember the biggest moment of that match was coming out of the chair at 3-0 down the second set,” she recalled. “I remember, to this very day, what I was saying to myself at that change of ends. From then on it’s held me in pretty good stead, sticking to those values and continuing to try and grow each and every time on court, and problem-solve and work my way through.”
On Sunday Barty will renew her rivalry with the American, who has not made it past the third round of a grand slam since but continues to demonstrate that she very much remains a danger to the Australian’s chances at Melbourne Park.
“I try to forget, but also I remember that I learned a lot from that moment,” she said. “That was a turning point in my career, and you have to be able to take learnings from those moments, as hard as they are sometimes. I was able to navigate and find a way through. Which at that point in my life, in my career, it was a massive turning point.”
Most immediately, that turning point yielded a three-set win and the French Open trophy after she overcame Markéta Vondroušová in the final to secure her first grand slam title. Since then the 25-year-old, who added last year’s Wimbledon title to her major collection, has been the untouchable world No 1 with no sign of slipping off the summit.
“It feels like it’s a lifetime ago, but some of those memories are still really vivid,” she said. “Without a doubt we will take that and use that experience, use those feelings and those emotions as best we can.
“I would have loved to have had the opportunity to play Naomi. I love to test myself against the very best. In the position we’re in, Amanda has played a fantastic tournament. She deserves her spot in the round of 16. I think the match we will play will be exciting. It will be good for both of us to get out there and test ourselves against each other.”
The encounter has the potential to swing both ways. Anisimova, now 20, has brought an aggression to Melbourne Park that Belinda Bencic also failed to contain, and a wide, discombobulating serve.
Barty, however, has won 57 consecutive service games stretching back to her first match of the year at the Adelaide International against Coco Gauff. At this tournament she is yet to be broken in 23 service games, even during a couple of tough moments against Italian third-round opponent Camila Giorgi.
“It’s been really solid over the last couple of weeks,” she said. “Particularly in Adelaide I felt like I found a really good rhythm with it. Here so far in my matches I’ve been able to squeeze out of a few really tough games.”
The match will open the evening session on Rod Laver Arena, despite Barty making no secret of her preference to play during the day.
“I think I love to play in the daytime, that’s no secret,” she said. “I’ve always been a morning person, always been up early, and have grown up playing in the Australian sun. I love it. I love the extra bounce and the heat in the court.
“But night sessions here at the Australian Open are really special. The experience and the atmosphere that’s created in a night session is absolutely brilliant.
“So, I mean, everyone has preferences, but I don’t argue either way. I’m happy to play at any given time and get the opportunity to go out there and try and do what I can do, enjoy it, and take it for what it is.”
Anisimova, whose good form over the past few months has coincided with the presence in her camp of Australian coach Darren Cahill, is well aware of the threat the twice-grand slam winner poses.
“She’s an amazing player, I look up to her a lot,” Anisimova said. “I love her game. She’s very consistent. She’s a champion.
“So it’s just going to be exciting to go up against her, another amazing opportunity for me. I’m going to get back on the practice court tomorrow and work on my game and just try to give myself the best chance.”