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Australian Open

Barty-Kvitova Is A Happy Match At The Happy Slam

Matt Zemek

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Geoff Burke -- USA TODAY Sports

It is true that when two tennis players take the court, one must lose. To that extent, the upcoming Australian Open quarterfinal match between Ashleigh Barty and Petra Kvitova won’t be filled with 100-percent happiness. By that same measure or description, no sporting event is ever 100-percent happy.

Yet, if you were to imagine a scenario — any scenario — which came as close to 100 percent as humanly possible, you would pick something akin to the Barty-Kvitova backdrop.

You want feel-good stories? This is it. This is the good stuff right here.

I don’t need to take you through the exact details of what Barty and especially Kvitova have gone through in their lives. Chances are you probably know their journeys quite well. If you don’t, I will simply say that Barty took a hiatus from tennis to see how well she could play professional cricket. Kvitova was attacked by an invader who wielded a knife in her home, injuring Kvitova’s hand to the point where it was hard for her to grasp a racquet. The severity of the injury made Kvitova doubt whether she would ever be able to play tennis (at a professional level) ever again.

Now here they are, both in a major quarterfinal. It is Barty’s first-ever major quarterfinal at age 22. It is Kvitova’s first Australian Open quarterfinal since 2012, her first major quarterfinal at a non-U.S. Open major since she won Wimbledon in 2014. This was not a highly predictable occurrence.

Kvitova typically struggles with the Australian summer heat, but not through four rounds. She played a few night matches, but in the fourth round, she was squarely in the midday sun against Amanda Anisimova, who swept aside Aryna Sabalenka in the third round. Kvitova did exactly what she needed to do: Make quick work of the 17-year-old and not get roped into a long, complicated, three-set match, aka, a P3traCoaster. She is playing big-time ball, and with Angelique Kerber out of her half of the draw, she looks like the best bet to make next weekend’s women’s final.

Barty’s appearance in a major quarterfinal was no sure thing, either. Yes, the Australian has been steadily improving, but gradually — not in huge stratospheric leaps. Maria Sharapova is not the player she once was, but she still has a reputation and a presence on court which are hard for younger players to easily ignore. Barty felt the weight of her fourth-round match against Sharapova on Sunday, losing a scratchy 6-4 first set. However, Sharapova double-faulted and lost focus on serve early in the second set. Barty snatched a break lead and carried that positive moment for most of the next hour. She won the second set, 6-1, and took a 4-0 lead in the third. Sharapova battled back to 4-3 and had multiple break points to level for 4-4 in the third, but Barty’s serve answered the call. She staved off the Sharapova rally and won 6-4 in the third. It was the kind of win which — much like Frances Tiafoe’s numerous gut-check performances this week — carried value not because it was easy, but because it was hard.

Barty now knows she can handle the thinner air of pressure in the second week of a major tournament. It is so important for young players to know they can cope with that kind of stress. The more they endure without collapse, the more they know they can replicate a poised performance, which leads to more sustained success over time.

Barty and Kvitova earned their way here to this quarterfinal, but Barty’s comparative lack of experience and Kvitova’s history in hot weather both made this rendezvous anything but automatic.

Now that we have this matchup, though, let’s offer a brief word about its poignancy and meaning.

The particular details of Barty’s and Kvitova’s stories are worth noting, but the larger overall reality which knits these players together is that they both had to take detours from their tennis careers. Barty’s detour was chosen. Kvitova’s was not. Yet, the existence of a detour remains.

There is something everyone — or nearly everyone — can relate to in the reality of a life detour. For most if not all of us, a detour emerges at some point along life’s road. We have free will and we have the ability to shape how we respond to anything which happens, but we don’t have full control over outcomes. We can participate in the effort to shape or reshape outcomes, but we aren’t 100-percent in charge.

So, when life makes us reconsider our plans (Barty) or forces us to think about unpleasant possibilities (Kvitova), what do we do with those disruptions?

These two players are triumphing and have already triumphed, to considerable degrees, over their detours. There is something immensely relatable in that. It’s what makes this story so great, with one of these women moving to a major semifinal. Either Barty will carry Australia’s flag proudly into a home-nation major semi — a huge story on its own terms — or Kvitova will make her first major semi in five years, also a gigantic development if it happens.

The Happy Slam has its Happy Quarterfinal. Smiles all around for Ash and Petra!

They have earned them.

Matt Zemek is the co-editor of Tennis With An Accent with Saqib Ali. Matt is the lead writer for the site and helps Saqib with the TWAA podcast, produced by Radio Influence at radioinfluence.com. Matt has written professionally about men's and women's tennis since 2014 for multiple outlets: Comeback Media, FanRagSports, and independently at Patreon, where he maintains a tennis site. You can reach Matt by e-mail: mzemek@hotmail.com. You can find him on Twitter at @mzemek.

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