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Barty to meet Kvitova in Aussie Open quarters

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MELBOURNE, Australia — Ash Barty didn’t want to play tennis. Didn’t want to watch tennis, or even talk about the sport. She took a break from the tour after the 2014 U.S. Open to explore another career – in cricket.

Yes, cricket. The game of wickets, tea breaks, of bowling maiden overs or hitting the ball for six.

A little more than two years after switching back from bat to racket, Barty has caught the attention of a nation after becoming the first Australian woman in a decade to reach the quarterfinals of the Australian Open.

She beat five-time Grand Slam winner Maria Sharapova, the 2008 Australian titlist with a profile that transcends the sport, in a fourth-round match on Sunday that had the partisan crowd – including the prime minister – in raptures. They’re calling it the Barty Party.

“It’s amazing that it’s happening in Australia,” Barty said. “I have given myself the opportunity and the chance to play in front of the best crowd in the world on one of the best courts in the world and in my home Slam. There is absolutely nothing better.”

The great Rod Laver was there watching, in the stadium named in his honor. Other local celebrities were in the crowd and Prime Minister Scott Morrison was courtside in his green Aussie cap and with his family. So it was in vogue for Aussies to be watching. Anna Wintour, too.

There hasn’t been an Australian winner of the home Grand Slam in 41 years, since Chris O’Neil won the women’s title on grass in 1978. Mark Edmondson was the last Australian man to win the title, when he beat fellow Aussie and defending champion John Newcombe in 1976.

It took four match points and 2 hours, 22 minutes before Barty fended off Sharapova 4-6, 6-1, 6-4 to reach the quarterfinals of a major for the first time, and becoming the first Australian woman since Jelena Dokic to reach the last eight at Melbourne Park.

She’ll next play two-time Wimbledon champion Petra Kvitova, who beat 17-year-old American Amanda Anisimova 6-2, 6-1 to return to the Australian Open quarterfinals for the first time in seven years. Kvitova is on a nine-match roll, including a win over Barty last week in the Sydney International final.

Barty lost a tight first set before Sharapova started struggling on serve – the Russian finished with 10 double-faults in the match. After dropping the second set – midway through Barty’s nine-game winning roll – Sharapova took an extended break in the locker room and was booed when she came back to court. That’s a rarity for the five-time Grand Slam winner in these parts.

A comeback was always on the cards, though, and Sharapova pushed it the distance. A four-time finalist at Melbourne Park, she recovered from 4-0 down in the deciding set, forcing Barty to serve it out, and saved three match points in the last game.

Barty was elated but the celebrations contained. In her on-court interview, she saluted her former cricket team the Brisbane Heat and told the crowd she’d watched her former teammates on TV as they qualified for the final of Australia’s Women’s Big Bash League.

It’s a bit of a theme for Barty. She earlier told the host broadcaster that she didn’t watch a lot of tennis during the tournament because she got enough of it in practice and on court.

Asked later if she thought she’d be in the same position now if she hadn’t spent time away, Barty said her time in cricket was a good tonic.

“No, absolutely. I needed to take that time away,” she said. “I feel like I came back a better person on and off the court, a better tennis player.

“Yeah, for me, having that 18 months off was vital.

Coming into 2019, the 22-year-old former Wimbledon junior champion said she set herself some goals, and it primarily revolved around making the second week of the majors. She’d never been beyond the third round in Australia, and her best previous run at a Grand Slam tournament was a fourth-round exit at last year’s U.S. Open.

“So excited that we have been able to give myself a chance here to go deep, which is one of the ultimate goals for `19 was to try and really get my teeth sunk into slams and get deep into the second week,” she said.

Barty has been troubling rivals with her slice backhand and unconventional style, which she describes as her own.

“I love to play with freedom and fun and try and create as much variety as possible,” she said. “Obviously my game is built around my serve and forehand and bringing in a variety with the slice.

“But there are no secrets in tennis. I think every day I try and challenge myself to add another string to my bow.”

Opelka edges top-seeded Isner to reach New York Open final

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UNIONDALE, N.Y. (AP) Reilly Opelka edged top-seeded John Isner the same way he knocked his fellow American out of the Australian Open, winning a match full of tiebreakers Saturday night in a New York Open semifinal that set a record for combined aces in a three-set match.

Opelka fought off six match points in a marathon second set and went on to win 6-7 (8), 7-6 (14), 7-6 (4) to move within a victory of his first ATP title.

The 6-foot-11 Opelka and 6-10 Isner combined for 81 aces and there were no breaks of serve. Opelka hit 43 aces, Isner had 38, and each had only one double fault.

It was similar to their meeting in Melbourne, when Opelka beat the ninth-ranked Isner in a first-round match that went four tiebreakers.

Opelka will play Canadian Brayden Schnur, a qualifier who had never won a tour-level match before this week.

Schnur recovered after blowing a 3-0 lead and eventually the second set to beat American Sam Querrey 7-6 (7), 4-6, 6-3.

Schnur was the final alternate accepted into the tournament’s qualifying draw and was nearly gone from Long Island quickly, eventually overcoming two match points to beat No. 3 seed Steve Johnson in the second round.

There was nothing quick about the second semifinal, which lasted 2 hours, 31 minutes and went well past the previous record of 71 aces, set earlier this year in a match between Nick Kyrgios and Ryan Harrison.

Isner was in good position to win in straight sets, taking a 3-1 lead in the tiebreaker when Opelka pushed a forehand long. But he wasted a chance to win the match on his serve, and Opelka then kept erasing the rest of the match points when he served.

Isner had dropped both matches this season, part of a six-match skid dating to the end of last year, before winning his first two matches here in straight sets.

But he was stopped again by Opelka, who fell two aces shy of Ivo Karlovic’s record for most aces in a three-set match.

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Mertens upsets Halep in Qatar Open final

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DOHA, Qatar – Unseeded Elise Mertens came from a set and a break down to beat recent No. 1 Simona Halep 3-6, 6-4, 6-3 in the Qatar Open final and capture the biggest title of her career on Saturday.

Halep led 6-3, 2-0, then lost a service game for a third time to see the second set back on serve. Mertens continued to pressure, missing two more break chances in the seventh game but finally breaking – to love – in the ninth. The set was the first Mertens took from Halep in three matchups.

Mertens broke again to start the third set, Halep leveled at 2-2, but Mertens finished stronger and won her fifth career title.

The Belgian beat two other top-10 players this week, Kiki Bertens and Angelique Kerber.

Halep’s first final appearance since August guaranteed she will rise one spot to No. 2 in the rankings on Monday.