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19 May 2024, Edition - 3232, Sunday

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Ash Barty exits Australian Open after stunning Karolína Muchová comeback



A set and 2-1 down, Karolína Muchová sits in her chair. Movement and muffling from behind a black Adidas face mask shows she is speaking to the two medicos hovering in front.

The one with the walkie talkie strapped to his trousers clasps her wrist between thumb and two fingers, feeling for a pulse that is clearly present but has also been very much absent on Rod Laver Arena. The Czech 24-year-old has met her Australian Open match in Ash Barty, outrun and outwitted for the 24 minutes it took the world No 1 to claim the opening set.

Muchová had been reaching awkwardly at her neck, and something clearly warrants further assessment. A temperature check, at least, for she is hot and bothered to Barty’s cool and composed. Clammy to Barty’s crisp. After the match she reveals her “head was spinning”.

Walkie talkie man reads the mercury then nods to his colleague and the pair, both shouldering backpacks no doubt full of bits and bobs for every situation, lead Muchová from the court and down the tunnel.

Barty’s challenger is gone. Quite literally, she has left the scene of the slaughter. But she is also gone in a figurative sense. Nothing can turn this carnage around, this straitjacket of a quarter-final in which there is no room to move or air to breathe before the Australian world No 1 interrupts her escape attempts once more.

This is reminiscent of Barty’s opener against Danka Kovinić, the Montenegrin who dropped the opening set 6-0 and was double bagelled thereafter. Muchová manages to avoid this when Barty, who had raced to 5-0 in the first after holding serve to love, gifted Muchová a service game. The 2019 French Open champion atoned for those unforced errors almost immediately with a passing shot down the line well deserving of a rapid first-set victory.

An early break Barty’s way in the second advents the medical timeout under way. And so ends the first of two mini-matches played out within the one. The second starts with Muchová re-emerging and tossing – more like flicking – that black Adidas mask on her seat. Something has shifted during those 10 minutes.

Barty does not quite know what yet, and is probably still not entirely sure when Muchová breaks her serve. She becomes more alert to this reorientation on losing seven of the next eight games, and painfully aware throughout a deciding-set quagmire, wading inexplicably deeper at 2-0 down, then 3-1 and, finally, 5-2 and receiving to save her tournament.

Barty does not do drama like this. But, unlike the previous blemish-free performances, this one is no longer in her control. Muchová converts her first match point with an ace, a flawless finish to an unrecognisable second portion of a contest lasting a total one hour and 57 minutes.

A rhythm lost, a collapse unbefitting a would-be champion. Barty’s face reads blank. So do the history books, as the local Australian Open singles title drought extends to a 44th year.

Muchová too, despite her near-mythical resurgence, almost shrugs her shoulders at the baseline. Afterwards, she says she was not injured.

“I started feeling a bit lost by the end of the first set, she played almost like no mistakes,” she says afterwards. “It was very tough and I was a bit lost on the court and my head was spinning so I took a break. It helped me. I tried to get back, played a bit faster rallies so we don’t play the long ones as in the first set and it worked well.”

A gracious Barty, poked and prodded by media hunting for a reaction, refuses to blame her opponent.

“It’s within the rules,” Barty says. “The’s within her rights to take that time. If she wasn’t within the rules, the physios and the doctors would have said so. That’s the laws of our game, that we have those medical time-outs for cases that are needed. Obviously she needed that today.

“I’ve played a lot of matches where there have been medical time-outs. I’ve taken medical time-outs myself before, so that shouldn’t be a massive turning point in the match. I was disappointed that I let that become a turning point. I’m experienced enough now to be able to deal with that.”

Muchová will play her semi-final against Jennifer Brady after the American overcame numerous errors to survive three sets against compatriot Jessica Pegula on Wednesday.

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