(Reuters) – World number one Ash Barty’s expectations have not risen too high after she advanced to the second week of the Australian Open on Friday following a 6-3 6-2 third round victory over Elena Rybakina.
Barty is arguably the best chance of ending Australia’s long wait for a home-grown champion at the year’s first grand slam, having held the world’s top ranking since last September and with the Adelaide International title under her belt.
The 23-year-old made a stuttering start to the tournament on Monday but was imperious against the highly rated Rybakina, whose power hitting and big serve led to her first WTA title and propelled her into the top-40 last year.
“I think today was probably my sharpest match that I played,” Barty told reporters after the one hour, 18 minute match on Rod Laver Arena.
“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.
“I felt like I could put the ball where I wanted to more often than not. Today (it) felt like it was cleaner than the other matches.”
Supported by numerous fans wearing bright pink “Barty Party” t-shirts in the stands, Barty had a little trouble settling into the match.
Neither player was able to hold serve in the opening four games but once Barty held in the fifth it was virtually one-way traffic from then on until she clinched the first set in 32 minutes.
Barty’s ability to exploit pace, angles and depth on her returns had the 20-year-old from Kazakhstan scrambling to stay in the match.
Despite Barty’s dominance, Rybakina did manage to highlight in the second set why she is projected to rise higher in the rankings.
Two games lasted longer than 10 minutes, but Rybakina was unable to seize on her six break-point opportunities as the Australian established a 5-1 lead and served the match out.
Barty will now face either 18th-seeded American Alison Riske or doubles partner Julia Goerges in the fourth round.
While Barty felt she had taken her game to a new level against Rybakina, she was not prepared to buy into talk of expectations she could become the first Australian women’s champion since Chris O’Neil in 1978.
“It’s all good, I’m fine. It’s about coming out here and enjoying it,” she replied when asked about whether she felt she could sense local expectations were increasing the deeper she went into the tournament.
“I’m loving every minute. Trying to do the best I can. That’s all I can ask of myself.”
(Reporting by Greg Stutchbury; Editing by Shri Navaratnam and Muralikumar Anantharaman)