Rising Kazakh Elena Rybakina has already made two WTA Tour finals in 2020 – can she upset top seed and home favourite Ashleigh Barty at the Australian Open on Friday?
Ashleigh Barty vs Elena Rybakina is live from Melbourne on Friday 24 January at 11am local/12am GMT
It will be the first meeting between Barty and Rybakina with a place in the last 16 of the Australian Open on the line.
Barty has now won six straight matches since losing her opening match of the season to qualifier Jennifer Brady at the Brisbane International. The world no. 1, a quarterfinalist at the Australian Open last year, bounced back from that defeat by claiming her first title of 2020 at the Premier-level Adelaide International, beating Marketa Vondrousova and Dayana Yastremska on the way.
Barty had a little trouble in adjusting to the very different conditions in Melbourne and got off to a slow start against Lesia Tsurenko in the first round, making 19 unforced errors in the first set alone before coming back to win 5-7, 6-1, 6-1 as Tsurenko faded rapidly. It was a less than emphatic start to her quest to become the Australian Open’s first homegrown singles champion since 1978 but things picked up for Barty in the second round as she got off to a faster start against Polona Hercog. Things weren’t always entirely plain sailing as Barty had to save multiple break points in the second set, but she was able to wrap up a fairly straightforward 6-1, 6-4 win in an hour and 18 minutes.
The top seed said:
‘I think you feel more comfortable every day. Every time you’re able to win a match, you have another opportunity to try and be that little bit better, to try to be that little bit more sharp and clean.
‘I felt like I started a lot better today, and then the second set, as well, was able to get out of some sticky service games towards the end of the set there.’
This is the fourth year in a row that Barty has made the third round in Melbourne, although she lost at that stage in 2017-18 before snapping that streak by beating Maria Sharapova last year, going on to make the quarterfinals before losing to Petra Kvitova.
The Aussie should be in for her toughest test yet as she faces her first seeded opponent in the third round, in the form of 29th seed Elena Rybakina.
Rybakina is one of the most in-form players in the draw, having made two WTA Tour finals in the first two weeks of the season: First finishing runner-up to Ekaterina Alexandrova in Shenzhen, then beating Zhang Shuai to win the Hobart International title. It was a spectacular start to a season which promises a great deal for the Kazakh, who rose from world no. 183 to world no. 36 over the course of 2019.
Still only 20 years old, Rybakina – who was born in Russia but switched citizenship to represent Kazakhstan – lost in the first round of qualifying for the Australian Open in 2019, but went on to win three ITF titles, qualify for a Grand Slam at the first time at the French and US Opens, win her maiden WTA Tour title in Bucharest and make semifinals in ‘s-Hertogenbosch and Luxembourg.
Currently ranked world no. 26, Rybakina is a big-hitting power player and is looking for the third win of her career over a top-10 opponent after beating Caroline Garcia in St Petersburg in 2018 and Simona Halep in Wuhan last autumn. She has yet to drop a set at the Australian Open in wins over Bernarda Pera and qualifier Greet Minnen.
Rybakina absolutely has the game to take it to Barty, I am convinced of that. What I’m less certain of is how much energy she will have to give to the match, having already played 12 matches in three weeks (and she needed treatment on her upper leg back in Hobart); and how well she will handle the big occasion. I can see Barty being rocked back on her heels by the Kazakh’s power if she, Barty, doesn’t impose her authority on the match early on; strong serving in the opening stages of the match will be vital if Barty hopes to get a straight-sets win.