Ashleigh Barty fell to Alison Riske at Wimbledon – can the world no. 1 get her revenge as they meet in the fourth round of the Australian Open?
Barty vs Riske is live from Melbourne on Sunday 26 January at 7pm local/8am GMT
Top seed Barty lost her first set of the tournament, but has been untroubled since then, coming back from 5-7 down against Lesia Tsurenko and winning her next six sets 6-1, 6-1; 6-1, 6-4 against Polona Hercog; and 6-3, 6-2 against Elena Rybakina.
One of just three top seeds remaining in the women’s draw after the third seed saw the exits of Naomi Osaka, Serena Williams, Karolina Pliskova, Elina Svitolina and Belinda Bencic, Barty’s chances for reaching the final or even becoming the first Australian to claim the singles title since Chris O’Neil in 1978 look much stronger than they did a few days ago.
But the lesson of the decimation of the draw is that the field is incredibly packed with dangerous players, and Barty is about to meet one of them in Alison Riske.
Fortunately for Barty, she played her best match of the tournament so far against Rybakina in the third round. The Kazakh, who shot up the rankings in 2019, had made back-to-back WTA Tour finals to begin 2020 in Shenzhen and Hobart, winning the latter, and is a formidable power player who came at Barty with real aggression. Barty had to impose herself on the match, unable to afford the slow start she got off to against Tsurenko, and she did so with her big serve, winning 71% of points behind her first serve and saving eight of the ten break points she faced. In the end, she hit more winners than Rybakina and did so for fewer unforced errors, ending the match with 28 winners and 16 unforced errors to Rybakina’s 23 and 30 respectively.
Barty is now on a seven-match winning streak since losing to Jennifer Brady in Brisbane to start the season and the Adelaide International champion hasn’t shown any particular nerves at shouldering the burden of home expectation, although other players have drawn plenty of attention including Nick Kyrgios in the men’s draw which may have slightly dimmed the spotlight upon her.
After beating Rybakina, Barty said:
‘I think today was probably my sharpest match that I played. I felt really comfortable moving around the court. I felt like I found the middle of the racquet a lot sooner than my other matches.
‘Particularly there were tough, long service games. I was able to get out of them and continue the momentum. I think all in all it was a pretty well-rounded performance.’
Barty has no more margin for error as she prepares to face Riske.
Currently ranked world no. 19, Riske has been playing the best tennis of her career over the past year and absolutely dazzled in 2019, especially on grass – always the strongest surface for the American – as she went 14-2, winning the Surbiton $100k, the WTA Tour title in ‘s-Hertogenbosch and making the first Grand Slam quarterfinal of her career at Wimbledon (where she beat Barty). But she also had very good results on hard courts, reaching the final of Shenzhen in January and of the Premier-5 Wuhan Open in September.
Overall, Riske went 4-5 against top-10 players and compiled a 36-24 win-loss record.
Riske made a good start to 2020 with straight-sets wins over Karolina Muchova and Barbora Strycova in Brisbane before a tight quarterfinal loss to eventual champion Karolina Pliskova, but her route to the fourth round has not been as straightforward as Barty’s. In the first round, Riske had to go the distance with Acapulco champion Wang Yafan, and after breezing through Zhu Lin in the second, she had to really battle against Julia Goerges in the third round.
Goerges, a Wimbledon semifinalist in 2018, has always played good tennis in Australia and she absolutely tore through Riske in the first set, which she won 6-1 in just 24 minutes. This was all about grit and resilience for the American, who actually broke Goerges in the second and served for the set, but couldn’t close it out and had to come back from a mini-break down in the ensuing tie-break, winning the last six points to force a decider which she largely dominated, giving Goerges no chance to get back to into it as she closed out a 1-6, 7-6(4), 6-2 victory.
While Barty’s smooth progress through the opening rounds should ensure that she has plenty of energy left for the second week, Riske’s gritty win over Goerges has left her very match fit and full of self-belief. It’s not a good combination, especially when Riske has a 2-0 record against Barty, having beaten her 7-6(5), 7-5 in Eastbourne in 2016 and 3-6, 6-2, 6-3 at Wimbledon last year.
It’s true that both those matches were on grass, but I don’t see any reason why Riske’s success in them shouldn’t translate to hard courts, especially with her confidence so high. It was Riske’s very aggressive, very accurate returning which undid Barty at Wimbledon, the Australian player’s winner numbers declining throughout the match as she struggled to get on the front foot before her usually-so-dominant serve; and if Riske returns the same way on Sunday, there’s not going to be much that Barty can do about it, with the American following up with her flat forehand and good net game. The match-tough Riske looks likely to eliminate the top seed from the draw on Sunday.