World No. 1, Ashleigh Barty overcame a slow start to beat Lesia Tsurenko, and move into the second round of the Australian Open on Monday night.
Following a superb 2019, during which she won her first Grand Slam title at Roland Garros, and became the No. 1 player in the world, Barty is carrying some sizeable weight in this tournament, as she attempts to become the first home player to win the women’s singles title since Chris O’Neil triumphed in 1978.
Those expectations have been further heightened by Barty’s title run in last week’s Adelaide International- her first tour-level title on home soil in what was the perfect finish to her preparations for the first major of the year.
Barty had played down the potential effects of an expectant public during her pre-tournament press conference, but the Australian was not her free-flowing self in the opening phase of her first-round meeting with Lesia Tsurenko, failing to find the fluency that had propelled her to the top of the women’s game.
After suffering first round defeats in her first three Australian Open appearances, Barty has gradually improved in recent years, with last year’s quarter final run being her best effort in Melbourne. However, she flirted with first-round disaster on Monday.
Barty tallied a massive 19 unforced errors in the opening set, and fittingly dropped the set 7-5. Tsurenko wasn’t exactly redlining her game, but the Ukrainian came up with the more solid tennis at the critical periods towards the end of the set. It was the third straight set she had taken off Barty, having also beaten the Australian in their only previous meeting main draw in Brisbane in 2018.
Tsurenko was at a career-high 23rd in the rankings less than a year ago, but she was bothered by an elbow problem in the second half of the season, and missed the final five months of 2019. She only just returned to action in Shenzhen, where she was beaten by Elise Mertens in her tournament opener. With no match win since July last year, it was always going to be difficult to get over the line against the best player in the world.
Barty has patented the art of making in-game adjustments, and she was again at it again on Monday night. She responded superbly to the loss of that opening set, dropping just two more games to sprint to a 5-7 6-1 6-1 victory after an hour and 36 minutes. Barty made just 11 unforced errors in the second and third sets combined, eight less than what she offered in a wayward opening set.
“It was disappointing to not start as well as I would have liked,” said Barty afterwards. “I was frustrated that I wasn’t hitting the ball in the court when I wanted to. I think I was aiming for big targets and missing by quite a bit, which I wasn’t comfortable with. Being able to kind of rectify that and fix that so quickly at the start of the second set was really important.”
The 23-year-old served 10 aces and won 78% of points on her first serve, hitting 25 winners against 30 unforced errors.
“I felt comfortable knowing that I just needed to change a few things, to adjust, to try and bring the match back in my favor… Knowing that I’ve come back from being a set down in many matches is good. I’d prefer not to be in that situation. It’s good knowing I have the ability to trust myself when I need to.”
The top seed will next face either Rebecca Peterson or Polona Hercog in the second round.