World number one Ashleigh Barty said on Saturday she relished the unusual challenge of playing in empty stadiums, after she cruised past Russia’s Ekaterina Alexandrova at the newly fan-free Australian Open. Barty’s all-round prowess frustrated the big-hitting 29th seed in the 6-2, 6-4 third-round clash in an empty Margaret Court Arena on the first day of Melbourne’s snap, five-day lockdown. The top seed sat out most of last season as the pandemic took hold, missing the other tournaments that have already been staged without fans.
“I enjoyed challenging myself in a new environment,” Barty said.
“It was a new experience. You could hear a pin drop in there tonight at times.”
“You could narrow your focus to listen to the sound of the ball. I felt like I navigated through it quite well.”
She will face Shelby Rogers in the fourth round after the American dispatched Estonian 21st seed Anett Kontaveit 6-4, 6-3.
Barty will go into the clash as hot favourite having won both their prior matches, but was pushed to the brink by Rogers in last week’s Yarra Valley Classic quarter-finals.
“She’s got the ability to take the game away from you,” Barty said of the world number 57.
“I’ll have to do the best that I can, but understand that the match is not always in my full control.”
Barty’s left thigh was again heavily strapped, but she moved around freely to dispel any injury concerns after pulling out of the women’s doubles on Friday.
“We had to give it time to rest and recover,” she said of her niggle.
“Felt like it didn’t affect me at all today. I’ll be ready to go no matter what.”
The 24-year-old’s unwavering accuracy and canny slices ended an impressive run for Alexandrova, who arrived in hot form after upsetting world number two Simona Halep and French Open champion Iga Swiatek at last week’s Gippsland Trophy.
Barty started loosely and double-faulted to drop serve, but she returned superbly to rattle the Russian, whose heavy groundstrokes went awry.
The Australian reeled off six straight games to claim the first set, with Alexandrova requiring a medical timeout between sets for a stomach issue.
The 26-year-old Russian mustered a better fight in the second set, but to no avail as she failed to make a maiden fourth-round appearance in a Grand Slam.
Expectations, however, are raised for Barty, whose side of the draw has opened up with the early exits of defending champion Sofia Kenin and world number six Karolina Pliskova.
The 2019 French Open champion is on a mission to end Australia’s 43-year singles title drought in Melbourne.
Barty, who made the semi-finals last year, reached the second week of her home Slam for the fifth straight year.
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