MELBOURNE, AUSTRALIA (AP) – Ash Barty didn’t play competitive tennis in almost a year. It seems like she didn’t miss a beat.
Top-ranked Barty cashed in on her first championship point against Garbine Muguruza in the Yarra Valley Classic and Daniil Medvedev clinched the ATP Cup title for Russia within seconds of each other yesterday as the tuneup tournaments for the Australian Open were culminating the eve of the year’s first major.
After a hectic preparation, which included 14-day quarantines under strict COVID-19 pandemic regulations for the 1,200 or so players, coaches and staff who flew in for the Australian Open, the warmup week of tournaments was being capped with five finals and two semifinals.
Barty started by claiming her second WTA on home soil — just over a year after her first — with a 7-6 (3), 6-4 win over sixth-seeded Muguruza, the Australian Open runner-up last year.
Barty hasn’t left Australia since the coronavirus outbreak became a global pandemic. Instead of playing the US Open or trying to defend her French Open title, she spent her time practicing, playing golf and doing things like watching her favourite football team win the Australian Football League.
“Absolutely no regrets for me,” Barty said. “I felt like it’s been a challenging 12 months for everyone all across the world. Everyone has been in a very different, unique situation, depending on what country they’re in — even what state here in Australia.
“I feel very fortunate to have had the year that I have had — there was nothing but positive vibes. Now I’m really happy to be back playing tennis with an opportunity to play in front of a crowd here at the Australian Open. It’s really special.”
There were small clusters of spectators at Margaret Court Arena to watch Barty’s final. Still, that’s more of a crowd than most players have been accustomed to seeing at their matches during the pandemic. Today, when the Australian Open starts, there’s expected to be up to 30,000 fans at Melbourne Park.
To the crowd yesterday, Barty said, “For us, this is what makes the magic happen.”
“I’m so grateful you can be here making it extra special for us,” she added. “Seeya next week.”
Muguruza had dropped only 10 games — never more than two in a set — in her previous four straight-set victories at the tournament, including a 6-2, 6-2 quarterfinal win over 2020 Australian Open champion Sofia Kenin.
The two-time major winner got the first break of serve to lead 3-1 before Barty broke back. Muguruza broke again and had a chance to serve for the first set, before Barty went on a roll.
The Australian star used her slice backhand and drop shots to keep Muguruza moving around the court, and mixed some powerful forehands with variety — clinching the match with a lob.
Barty will get the day off today because the bottom half of the Australian Open women’s draw will be played on the first day, featuring Serena Williams starting another bid for a record 24th Grand Slam singles title, number three-ranked Naomi Osaka and number two-ranked Simona Halep.
The top half of the men’s draw is set for today, with Novak Djokovic starting his quest for a third consecutive Australian Open title with a first-round match against Jeremy Chardy and number three-ranked Dominic Thiem, the runner-up here last year, opening against Mikhail Kukushkin.
MERTENS WINS GIPPSLAND
Elise Mertens beat Kaia Kanepi 6-4, 6-1 to win the Gippsland Trophy title, her sixth tour title and second at the WTA 500 level.
The 25-year-old Belgian has won 27 matches since the tour restarted in August, more than any other player on the women’s circuit in that time.
The WTA Tour decided not to play a final for the Grampians Trophy because of a lack of time, meaning semifinal winners Anett Kontaveit and Ann Li will get equal points
The tournament was created for the players who had to go into hard lockdown during quarantine and weren’t allowed out of their hotel rooms for practice. It started Wednesday and a full day of play was lost on Thursday because of a temporary suspension of matches in all tournaments after a coronavirus scare.
Kontaveit beat Greece’s Maria Sakkari 6-2, 6-3, 11-9 and Li beat fellow American Jennifer Brady 7-6 (5), 6-7 (5) ,10-6.
EVANS WINS FIRST TITLE
Dan Evans captured his first ATP title by beating third-seeded Felix Auger-Aliassime 6-2, 6-3 in the Murray River Open final.
It was another step on the career ladder for Evans, who wasted three match points the last time he reached a final.
“My team has been there through some not so good times, so thanks for that,” he said.
He is seeded 30th for the Australian Open and will face fellow British player Cameron Norrie in the first round. The 20-year-old Auger-Aliassime is still seeking his first title, having lost all seven finals he has contested on the ATP tour.
Fourth-seeded Jannik Sinner beat compatriot Stefano Travaglia 7-6 (4), 6-4 to win the Great Ocean Road Open, earning the 19-year-old Italian back-to-back titles on tour following his victory at Sofia late last year.
Sinner will have to recover quickly, with a first-round match against number 11-seeded Denis Shapovalov at the Australian Open today.