World no. 1 Ashleigh Barty will play her first singles match of 2020 at the Brisbane International on Thursday against Jennifer Brady, the American whose improved serve and fitness took her past Maria Sharapova in a thriller.
Ashleigh Barty vs Jennifer Brady is live from Brisbane on Thursday 9 January at 11am local/1am GMT
Barty, Brady, Brisbane: It’s a recipe for a blockbuster Thursday morning at the first WTA Premier of 2020 as home favourite and world no. 1 Ashleigh Barty finally plays her first singles match of the year.
Barty and Kiki Bertens have already played two doubles matches in Brisbane and are into the quarterfinals after knocking out the second seeds, but the top two singles seeds at the Premier event are afforded first-round byes and so it isn’t until Thursday that Barty and second seed Karolina Pliskova will be taking to the courts.
It’s a big moment for Barty, who has so many points to defend and so many expectations to shoulder in 2020 after an incredible 2019 season which saw her win a maiden French Open title, rise to world no. 1, reach six finals and win three of the biggest titles of the season at Miami, Roland Garros and the WTA Finals, and generally take a step upwards into another stratosphere of pressure and fame.
Barty is well known for her down-to-earth attitude and seemed to manage the increased visibility well in 2019, but starting the new season in her home country adds a whole new level of pressure, especially when said country is desperate for a homegrown Australian Open champion at the best of times and is not going through the best of times at the moment.
One slight benefit for Barty is that she doesn’t have any points to defend in Brisbane, which she did not play last year. But it’s not historically been a good event for her, unlike Sydney, where she made the final in 2019: In three main-draw appearances, she has won two singles matches only, and was defeated 3-6, 2-6 by Lesia Tsurenko in her opening match in 2018.
Under the circumstances, playing a relatively under-the-radar opponent she’s expected to beat but one who seems to be tapping into a rich vein of form could be a bit of a recipe for disaster for Barty.
Jennifer Brady first came to most people’s attention when she made a surprise run to the fourth round of the Australian Open as a qualifier in 2017, going on to reach the round of 16 at the US Open and finish the season with a semifinal run in Hong Kong. She had a relatively quiet season in 2019, although she did reach the semifinals in Nottingham and made the last 16 in Dubai and Beijing to start 2020 at a career-high ranking of world no. 53.
Brady opted to spend the off-season training in Germany instead of in Florida as is her usual custom, and it seems to have paid dividends in both increased fitness and improved serving. Both were on display as she won three matches to come through qualifying without dropping a set, as well as in her three-set victory over Maria Sharapova, which saw her shake off a slow start and come back from a set down to triumph 3-6, 6-1, 7-6(3).
‘I’ve been focusing a lot on [my serve], working a lot on it and spending a lot of extra time out on the practice court. I was pretty happy to dominate on my serve because towards the end there it definitely got me through and helped me in the match.’
Sharapova’s serve did decline throughout the match, unsurprisingly after the Russian underwent shoulder surgery in 2019, and she ended with eight aces but 11 double faults. There was not much wrong with her baseline game, however, and Brady did well to recover from a slow start and come past the former world no. 1.
With four wins under her belt in Brisbane already and looking fit and fierce, Brady could be a formidable opponent for Barty as the latter begins her singles season, despite a head-to-head which is very much in the Australian’s favour: Barty beat Brady at Indian Wells and in Birmingham in 2019, losing five and four games respectively. Don’t be surprised if Thursday’s Brisbane encounter is far closer.