Having secured her place in the Australian Open fourth round, Ashleigh Barty gave a clearer insight into her true feelings on playing in an empty Rod Laver Arena than she likely intended.
While others have been unsettled by the sound of silence since fans were banned from attending the first Grand Slam of the year due to a cluster of Covid-19 cases in Melbourne, the world number one had a different perspective.
“It's kind of a way that you can narrow your focus in to listen to the sound of the ball,” Barty said after her straight sets win over Ekaterina Alexandrova. “I find it a way where I can listen to the spin the opponent is hitting on the ball, the pace it's coming.
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“It's just another way for me to be able to absorb the information quickly, to then adjust and change what I need to in order to try and then put the ball in the position that I want to.”
Barty was careful to caveat her answer with the insistence that she missed the atmosphere produced by fans predominating behind her at her home Grand Slam, but the Australian’s remarks raise a compelling discussion point.
Not since Chris O’Neil in 1978 has an Australian won a men’s or women’s singles title at the Australian Open. Barty, as a Grand Slam champion and number one seed, stands the best chance of breaking that duck since Lleyton Hewitt’s spell as world number one in the early 2000s.
Similar to Hewitt, Barty has struggled to find her best form in front of a home crowd, though. Last year, the field appeared to have opened up for the 24-year-old to go all the way at Melbourne Park only for Barty to lose to relative outsider Sofia Kenin - who went on to win the trophy - despite having set points in both of the sets played.
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Parallels can be drawn between the pressure Barty experiences at the Australian Open and the pressure that was heaped on Andy Murray at Wimbledon for a number of years. While the Scot ultimately learned to use that pressure to his benefit, winning two men’s singles titles at SW19, there were times at which it crushed him.
This is why Barty might secretly relish the prospect of playing such high profile matches with only her only thoughts to distract her. Against a potentially tricky opponent in Alexandrova, the 24-year-old was measured in her approach throughout, achieving a level of control that evaded her in the second round against compatriot Daria Gavrilova.
With a state-wide lockdown in place until Thursday, Barty could get two more opportunities at least to play against a silent backdrop. American Shelby Rogers awaits in the fourth round on Monday. Win that match and Barty will face either Elise Mertens or Karolína Muchovain in the quarter finals. Beyond that it’s possible fans could be back as lockdown is lifted.
There are some players who thrive off the energy of the crowd. Nick Kyrgios, for instance, is one of those players. It’s difficult to imagine the 25-year-old achieving his best form in an empty stadium. Barty, however, is a different sort of character. The sound of the ball might make the difference in her attempts to become an Australian champion in Australia.
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