Lost, Then Found, Muchova Knocks Out Barty

Ashleigh Barty and Karolina Muchova (photo: Fiona Hamilton/Tennis Australia)

MELBOURNE/WASHINGTON, February 17, 2021 (by Michael Dickens)

Everything began sunny at the Australian Open in Melbourne Park on Wednesday. From the bright skies and 25º Celsius conditions that baked Rod Laver Arena in sunshine to World No. 1 Ashleigh Barty‘s sunny disposition at the outset of her quarterfinal match against Karolina Muchova, the last Czech remaining in the women’s singles draw.

At least, in the beginning – for a set and three games – everything went swimmingly good for Barty but not so much for Muchova, who visibly struggled through the first set.

Then, after Muchova became light-headed and dizzy – lost on the court – she decided she had endured enough misery and sought medical attention. As it turned out, the respite did her a world of good because in a matter of minutes, Muchova seemed a new player. She became energized. The medical time out changed the tenor of the match – almost like a match within a match – and it became all Muchova.

In this intriguing pairing of 24-year-olds who had faced each other once, won by Barty at the 2018 US Open, the World No. 1 gave a mature performance through the first 10 games before it all fell apart for her. Instead of celebrating with a victory and moving into the semifinal round over an out-of-sort Muchova, it was the Czech who came from a set and break down to win. Muchova reached her first career major semifinal with a 1-6, 6-3, 6-2 victory at the Happy Slam. The loss denied Barty a chance to bid for her second career major and first inside her home country. No Australian woman has won the Australian Open since Chris O’Neil in 1978.

“I think it’s a goal you set up when you’re playing tennis. For me, at least, it’s the majors, the Grand Slams, to go far,” Muchova said during her post-match press conference. “For me to be in [a] semifinal, it’s like a dream and I’m really happy for that.”

Next, Muchova, who already has wins this fortnight against World No. 6 Karolina Pliskova and World No. 20 Elise Mertens, will face No. 22 seed Jennifer Brady of the United States, who won an all-American quarterfinal over No. 64 Jessica Pegula, 4-6, 6-2, 6-1.

The first match on Day 10, played in the final day of the Victoria state five-day lockdown, lasted one hour and 54 minutes. It’s only too bad Barty wasn’t able to perform in front of a live audience because they would have had plenty to cheer for at the outset, and it seemed the Aussie could have used some crowd support down the stretch when she found herself trying to climb out of the trouble she created for herself.

“Yeah, tough one today, without a doubt,” said Barty, remaining upbeat during her post-match press conference. “I would have loved to have done a little bit better. We’ll go back to work and keep trying to grow for tomorrow. …

“You’re either winning or learning.”

At the outset, it seemed that every time the Queenslander from Ipswich put the ball in play, whether on her serve or Muchova’s, she hit winners or caused the Czech native from Prague to commit unforced errors. Barty’s confidence and workmanlike demeanor were evident from the get-go.

By the end of 24-minute opening set, won by Barty 6-1, she captured 80 percent of her service points, didn’t face a break point and was ahead on total points 25-11. She hit six winners to Muchova’s 13 unforced errors, many of them returns hit long or wide of their mark.

Then, Barty continued her dominance over the struggling Muchova, who took a medical time out during the third-game changeover. Barty broke to open the second set and consolidated it for a quick 2-0 lead with a nice drop-shot winner. Muchova finally held, then sat quietly while she had her pulse checked by the tournament medical staff.

“I think it was a bit of [the] heat,” said Muchova in describing her maladies. “It got to me. I was feeling kind of dizzy at some point, like really, really lost and almost fainting. So, I just asked for help.

“[The medical staff] cooled me down with ice. I was a bit in a shadow. Doctor checked my pressure, my temperature and everything.”

Following the medical time out, Barty served her first ace of the match, then hit a nice passing shot that left Muchova stunned. However, Barty proved human after all and was broken to even the set at 2-all. Then, Muchova consolidated the break to lead for the first time in the match at 3-2 with a couple of nifty high-backhanded volley winners as she began to reverse the tide. Her unforced errors diminished, she began executing her shots and started to play more engaging tennis.

“I would have liked to have just been a little bit sharper the next game,” Barty admitted. “Started well with the first point, just made a couple of loose errors in that game. I think for the rest of the set, that was the story, it was just over and over-made. Probably, [I] pressed a little bit trying to be overly aggressive.

“Just disappointed with the fact that I wasn’t able to bring the match back on my terms after she took that break.”

Soon, Barty saved a couple of break points in the sixth game and to earn an important hold, which leveled the set at 3-all. Then, Muchova saved a break point with a series of defensive lobs in her next service game, which lasted nearly nine minutes, and held for a 4-3 lead thanks to a nice backhand winner that stayed preciously inside of the doubles alley on the left side.

Barty found herself in plenty of trouble on her next service game having lost her rhythm. She saved three break points but Muchova’s patience paid off through thoughtful hitting and coming to the net at the right time. She broke Barty to lead 5-3 with a chance to draw the match even on her racquet – and she did with a love hold. Muchova won the 52-minute middle set 6-3 and turned the match on its side.

“I tried not to focus on her too much,” Barty admitted. “It’s about going about it the right way for me, the way that I wanted to play the match. I felt like I lost my way a little bit there in the second set, midway through, kind of last that momentum that I built.”

Suddenly, Muchova, who hadn’t dropped a set all fortnight until losing the first one to Barty, was putting up a good fight and showed what she’s capable of as she found her range. She was a completely different player than before the MTO. Muchova immediately got break points on Barty’s serve in the opening game of the final set and hit a well-executed forehand winner that passed by Barty to break the Aussie for a 1-0 advantage. Then, she saved a pair of break points in the second game that left Barty scratching her head and looking toward her box out of frustration. It seemed Barty had lost her confidence. Muchova finally held serve to end the 12-point game, which gave her a commanding 2-0 lead.

Barty appeared frustrated, not being able to get the match back on her terms as the unforced errors began to pile up, too.“Without a doubt, being frustrated in not being able to put the game on my terms, but then pressing a little bit too hard, making too many errors at critical times,” she said.

“I felt like I had small windows of opportunity, probably midway through the second set, and wasn’t able to kind of regroup enough to be clear in the third set how I wanted to play. I think I just lost my way a little bit, which is disappointing without a doubt.”

After dropping seven of eight games – being smothered by her opponent after strangle-holding her earlier – Barty got a much-needed hold with a solid service game to narrow Muchova’s lead to 2-1. Then, Muchova countered with an easy hold for a 3-1 advantage, but Barty followed with a hold at love in just over a minute to remain a break down. However, Muchova took control and served a love game for a 4-2 advantage and got break points on Barty’s next service game. She converted the second one as the World No. 1 netted a doable forehand return to surge ahead 5-2 with the match on her racquet.

With Muchova serving for a berth in her first Grand Slam semifinal, Barty remained scrappy and earned a trio of break points, which the Czech erased one at a time. Then, Muchova earned a match point after Barty sailed a forehand long. Finally, she triumphed with her second ace down the T to win the game, the set and the match. In doing so, she sent a disappointed Barty on her way back to the locker room.

Meanwhile, it turned into an incredible effort by Muchova. She won 12 of the final 15 games of the match, then celebrated by placing an ice bag on her head. At last, Muchova had earned a chance to cool off.

Looking back, Muchova changed her rhythm and variety once she felt physically able and took her time crafting her points. She stayed composed and now is into her first major semifinal.

“I think I will have to bring my A-game to play with [Brady] because she is really playing amazing matches, having a good season, even the last season so far. I look forward to that one. I will try to play my best.”

Against Barty, Muchova overcame 33 unforced errors by hitting 17 winners and saved 10 of the 13 break points she faced, many of them coming early on. Meanwhile, Barty’s numbers diminished by the end of the match and she finished with 21 winners and 27 unforced errors, winning just 59 percent of her service points and being outpointed 80-75.

Barty (8-1 in 2021) was asked what she thought she’ll learn from her first loss of the season – and first in nearly a year. “Oh, we go through everything. We learn through all of the experiences that we’ve had over the past two or three weeks. We just look back on it, we learn. We go through the match. We go through how I felt. We go through the rides of momentum,” she said.

“Overall, we take the positives that have come out of this last two or three weeks. Being back on tour has been fantastic. I’ve loved every second, even though at times it is frustrating. That’s the name of the game. That’s the sport that we play.

“I think we celebrate as a team the way that we’ve been able to come back into the sport and really play well. … The sun will come up tomorrow. We go about our work again.”

Every day is new opportunity for Brady

Jennifer Brady was impressive as she triumphed in an all-American quarterfinal against her good friend Jessica Pegula, 4-6, 6-2, 6-1, Wednesday afternoon to advance to her second career Grand Slam semifinal in the last two hardcourt majors. For the 25-year-old Pennsylvania native, who endured 14 days of strict quarantine after arriving in Melbourne last month, “every day is a new opportunity,” as she enthusiastically expressed during her on-court interview following her victory.

The hard-hitting World No. 24 Brady fired seven aces, won 82 percent (31 of 38) of her first-serve points and broke Pegula’s serve seven times in 10 opportunities. She smacked 22 winners and 29 unforced errors while Pegula was overcome with 32 unforced errors. Brady outpointed her opponent 80-63 during their one hour and 40-minute match on Rod Laver Arena.

“I think today I came out and was maybe pressing a little bit too much, trying to overplay, and was making a few unforced errors in the beginning of the first set,” Brady recalled during her post-match press conference. Dropping the opening set against Pegula was the first one of the tournament after Brady had won each of her first four matches in straight sets.

“I was able to find my way towards the end of the first, but unfortunately got broken, then was a little bit frustrated, lost the first set,” said Brady, whose win-loss record at the beginning of 2021 is a healthy 8-2.

“I found my way in the second set just playing more aggressive on my terms. I think towards the end of the third I was just really dialed in, tunnel vision, just kept going for my shots, playing aggressive.”

Next, Brady will face No. 25 seed Karolina Muchova, who earlier upset World No. 1 Ashleigh Barty in the first quarterfinal of the day. Both Brady and Muchova are 8-2 in their last 10 hardcourt matches.

“She’s crafty,” said Brady, who is 0-1 lifetime against the Czech. “She looks to move forward, has an all-court game. She’s really athletic. I hope it will be a good, competitive match. Yeah, I’m looking forward to it.”

The Brady-Muchova semifinal match will be the second women’s semifinal on Rod Laver Arena Thursday following the first between No. 3 seed Naomi Osaka of Japan and No. 10 seed Serena Williams of the United States. The Osaka-Williams match begins not before 2 p.m. AEDT (4 a.m. Central European, 3 a.m. London), followed by Brady-Muchova.

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