10:31 PM ET
MELBOURNE, Australia — Leading 6-1, 2-1 in her quarterfinal match against 25th seed Karolina Muchova, world No. 1 Ashleigh Barty had one foot in the last four of the Australian Open, and the nation’s dream of crowning its first home-grown champion since Christine O’Neil in 1978 was getting closer.
Barty utterly dominated Muchova in the opening set, continuing the dominant run she had been on this year at Melbourne Park. She won 25 points, to Muchova’s 11, made just six unforced errors and was playing a brand of tennis which would have had the remaining four women — including Serena Williams and Naomi Osaka — more than a little nervous at the prospect of facing her deep at the tournament.
But in scenes reminiscent to last year’s Australian Open men’s final between world No. 1 Novak Djokovic and Dominic Thiem, a controversial injury timeout flipped the match on its head. Muchova used the break not to seek treatment for a previous abdominal injury, but to compose herself; after an almost 10 minute break, the Czech reeled off 11 of the next 15 games to win 1-6, 6-3, 6-2 and send Barty crashing out of her home Slam.
Australia’s Ashleigh Barty fell to Karolina Muchova in the quarterfinals. WILLIAM WEST/AFP via Getty Images
With Barty riding her momentum to an early break of serve to go up 2-0 in the second set, a flat Muchova was left searching for answers. As the 24-year-old trudged off the court, she signaled to chair umpire Carlos Ramos that she required a medical timeout. Muchova didn’t appear to be suffering from any particular ailment, but nevertheless it was granted and she left the court to receive treatment shortly after.
“I started to feel a bit lost by the end of the first set and my head was spinning, so I took a break,” Muchova explained after the match. “They cooled me down a bit with ice and it helped me.”
That 10-minute pause in the match proved to be the catalyst for a stunning turnaround, and one which will likely haunt Barty for some time.
Muchova immediately broke back to level the second set at 2-2 and out of nowhere it was the Czech who was playing the better tennis. Barty’s focus dipped and suddenly the balls which were painting the Rod Laver Arena lines in the first set and three games were being sprayed wide and long. She was dumping balls into the net and double faulting with more frequency than we’d seen all tournament.
It was almost as if Barty thought the task had been completed and couldn’t quite motivate herself back into top gear.
The second set was pocketed by Muchova in 52 minutes and when she managed to break Barty in the first game of the deciding set, the look of concern on the Australian’s face only grew more obvious. For the first time in the tournament, Barty was not a favourite to advance to the next round.
Czech Republic’s Karolina Muchova receives medical attention during her quarterfinal against Ash Barty. WILLIAM WEST/AFP via Getty Images
A dazed and shell-shocked Barty continued to battle but was spraying unforced errors all over the court, allowing Muchova to break again shortly after for a 5-2 lead. The Czech then served out the match – securing her first semifinal berth at a Grand Slam.
“It’s a disappointment today, without a doubt,” Barty said after the loss. “I would have loved to have done better and just been a little bit sharper the next game [after the medical timeout]. I just made a couple of loose errors in that game. I think for the rest of the set, that was the story.”
The shift in momentum after the medical timeout was stark. Muchova had struck just one winner before she left the court, but managed to hit 16 when she returned. Meanwhile, the six unforced errors Barty had made ballooned out to 37 by the end of the match. She had been rattled.
“I felt like I lost my way with overplaying, overpressing, not letting myself work into the points and really construct points as well as I’d like to,” she said. “I’m just disappointed with the fact that I wasn’t able to bring the match back on my terms.”
For the second straight year, Barty has blown a golden chance to lift the Daphne Akhurst Memorial Cup. Twelve months ago she was the only top 10-ranked player to reach the semifinals at Melbourne Park, but couldn’t capitalize on the opportunity and fell to eventual champion Sofia Kenin in straight sets in the penultimate round.
This year has perhaps been even kinder to Barty with the draw opening up significantly over the course of the tournament. Top seeds on her half of the draw in Kenin, Bianca Andreescu, Petra Kvitova and Elina Svitolina were all ousted early on, leaving Barty with the unheralded trio of Muchova, Jennifer Brady and Jessica Pegula in her side of the draw at the quarterfinal stage.
Golden opportunities, such as these, to win your home Grand Slam don’t come around all that often and for Barty to squander two, in back-to-back years, is a major disappointment.
“It’s heartbreaking, without a doubt,” she said. “But we go through everything and learn through all of these experiences. Will it deter me, will it ruin the fact we’ve had a really successful start to our season? Absolutely not.”