By Nick Mulvenney
MELBOURNE (Reuters) – World number one Ash Barty overcame high winds and a potentially tricky opponent to ease into the third round of the Australian Open with a 6-1 6-4 victory over Polona Hercog on Wednesday.
After choking smoke from recent bushfires and torrential rains, players at Melbourne Park on Wednesday had to contend with swirling winds.
Nothing the Australian weather could throw at her was about to put Barty off her stride, however, as she continued her quest to become the first home-grown champion at the Australian Open since Chris O’Neil at Kooyong in 1978.
The French Open champion had given her compatriots a scare by losing her first set of the tournament on Monday but there was no repeat on day three of the championships as Barty raced through the first set in 24 minutes.
“The wind was a massive factor today, changed end to end dramatically,” the 24-year-old told reporters after a second success on Rod Laver Arena.
“It was important for me to get a good start, and I was able to do that.”
Barty had been wary of Slovenian Hercog, who wore a skull on her black visor to match the one tattooed on her arm, and her caution was vindicated in the second set when the Slovenian attacked her serve.
The top seed, however, saved all six break points she faced, including a couple in her final service game, and sealed the victory when the Hercog was unable to keep a backhand return in the court.
“Obviously nice to be able to get out of those. In those points, my structure of points was a lot better,” she added.
“I probably should have done those earlier in the service games.”
The world number one next faces 29th seed Elena Rybakina of Kazakhstan, who was the other WTA title winner along with Barty in the final week of warm-ups for Melbourne Park when she won in Hobart.
“I think for me it’s about doing what I do best regardless of whether it’s a first round, third round, or a final,” said Barty.
“It doesn’t really matter for me what round it is. I’m still going out there trying to do the same thing essentially.”
A victory on Friday would move her past the third round at Melbourne Park for only the second time in seven attempts, which would boost local excitement around her campaign.
Barty has earned plaudits for her level-headed attitude throughout her meteoric rise to the top and she illustrated it once again when asked whether an Australian champion would be fitting after the bushfire crisis.
“Honestly, there are so many bigger things going on in Australia right now. I don’t think anyone could care less if an Aussie wins it or not,” she said.
“First and foremost, it’s about the safety and the well-being of Aussies all across the nation, of wildlife, everything.
“I’d prioritise the safety and kind of rebuilding parts of our nation that have been destroyed over a tennis match any day of the week.”
(Reporting by Nick Mulvenney, editing by Peter Rutherford and Sam Holmes)