Melbourne came so close to being treated to the ultimate celebration of the end of its third lockdown on Thursday afternoon with what would’ve been a tennis match for the ages.
But, unfortunately, it wasn’t to be. Instead of a partisan COVID-19-safe packed house at Rod Laver Arena willing Australian golden girl Ash Barty onto her maiden final appearance at the first grand slam of the year, local fans had to be content with a neutral semi-final between Czech 25th seed Karolína Muchová and American 22nd seed Jennifer Brady.
What an anti-climax.
There seemed to be a sense of destiny about Barty’s journey to the final this year. With the draw opening up for her, it felt as though 2021 would provide as good a chance as any for her to win her home grand slam for the first time.
But Muchová had other ideas and she ensured that the 43-year streak of no Australian winning the Australian Open would continue for another 12 months at least.
After breezing through her first four matches at Melbourne Park this month without dropping a set, Barty made it nine sets in a row when she took the first set against Muchová on Wednesday.
But after trailing 1-6, 1-2, Muchová took a strategic medical timeout and, to her credit, completely turned the contest on its head, winning 11 of the next 14 games to bulldoze her way into her first-ever grand slam semi-final.
Unfortunately for her, though, that’s as far as she would make it in the tournament because Brady beat her 6-4, 3-6, 6-4 in an epic final-four contest that lasted almost two hours.
The American will now face arguably the best female player in the world, Naomi Osaka, in the final on Saturday after the Japanese number three seed overcame 23-time grand slam champion, Serena Williams, 6-3, 6-4 in 75 minutes.
For Brady, it’s her first trip to a grand slam final after she made it to the semi-final stage of the U.S. Open last year. Meanwhile, Osaka is just at the initial phase of laying the foundations for what looms to be one of the great tennis careers as she chases her fourth major title in the space of just 29 months.
The 23-year-old has two U.S. Opens to her credit and will be looking to add to her 2019 Australian Open triumph this weekend.
Where does all of this leave Barty? Well, you don’t become world number one by fluke, let alone stay there for 56 weeks in a row (and 63 weeks all up).
And while you just can’t help but feel a golden opportunity was missed for the 2019 French Open champion this year, she’s still only 24 years old and if her active streak of three consecutive Australian Open quarter-finals is any indication, she’s still well-placed to finally break the tournament’s homegrown champion drought at some stage.
In the men’s side of the draw, a familiar face has made his way back to the final match of the competition.
World number one Novak Djokovic has overcome a mystery injury, presumably an abdominal complaint suffered earlier in the tournament to return to his very best form, as he crushed Cinderella man Aslan Karatsev 6-3, 6-4, 6-2 in just under two hours on Thursday night to advance to his ninth Australian Open final.
Russian qualifier Karatsev created history by becoming the first man to make it to the semi-finals on grand slam debut, but he proved to be no match for the eight-time champion who is now 17-0 in semi-finals/finals at the Australian Open.
Will Djokovic make it Australian Open title number nine on Sunday night? Well, he’s certainly going to take some beating as he aims to clinch his 18th grand slam title and inch closer towards joint record holders Roger Federer (20) and Rafael Nadal (20).
Medvedev has won his last 19 matches in a row while Tsitsipas became just the third man in history to come back from two sets down to beat the great Nadal.
Nadal’s previous record in five-set matches in which he takes a two-set lead? 246-2.
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