It was fun while it lasted but the “Barty Party” at the Australian Open came to an end Thursday courtesy of a tenacious American who followed a similar career path as Maria Sharapova.
Sofia Kenin beat top-ranked Ashleigh Barty 7-6 (8-6), 7-5 in the women’s semifinals in scorching Melbourne to extend Australia’s wait for a home winner at the year’s opening major.
The score was identical, with Muguruza edging an even more extended first-set tiebreak 10-8.
“It was very, very hot today and I felt it,” said Halep. “Killed me after the first set, in the end of the first set. The sun was strong.”
When Barty held two set points on Kenin in the opening set tiebreak amidst cheers of ‘Let’s go, Ash, let’s go,’ it certainly felt as if the down-to-earth Queenslander was on her way to becoming the first Aussie woman since Wendy Turnbull in 1980 to advance to the last stage here.
Yet the 15th-ranked Kenin escaped and then saved two more set points in the second set to become the first American woman other than Serena or Venus Williams to find herself in the Melbourne finale since Lindsay Davenport in 2005.
In temperatures that hovered around 40 degrees Celsius (104 Fahrenheit) — play was almost suspended according to the tournament’s heat scale — Barty’s unforced error count, unusually, climbed.
By the conclusion, it reached a whopping 36 coupled with 33 winners.
Renown for having one of the best, if not the best, backhand slice on tour, that shot faltered into the net on numerous occasions as Barty attempted to lure Kenin forward.
Two of her four set points in the clash dissipated courtesy of a backhand slice unforced error and forehand unforced error.
Barty said the conditions weren’t a factor, citing the fact she grew up in the heat near Brisbane.
And she discounted feeling the pressure of trying to win at home.
“I’ve been in a grand slam semifinal before,” said last year’s French Open winner. “Yes, it’s different at home. I enjoyed the experience. Yeah, I love being out there. I’ve loved every minute of playing in Australia over the last month.
“I could have had an opportunity to go one more match, but we didn’t quite get that today.”
Kenin — who ousted crowd favorite Coco Gauff in the fourth round — idolized Sharapova growing up.
Like Sharapova, she was born in Russia before moving to Florida at a young age. If the 21-year-old doesn’t match Sharapova’s competitiveness, it is very close.
She made great strides in 2019, downing Serena Williams at the French Open and fellow grand slam champions Bianca Andreescu, Naomi Osaka and Barty while packing her schedule.
Her dad, Alex, said his daughter deserved more attention after she beat teen sensation Gauff in the fourth round. Now she’s getting it — and enjoying it.
Liking the attention
“I know people haven’t really paid attention much to me in the past,” said the 15th-ranked Kenin. “I had to establish myself, and I have. Of course, now I’m getting the attention, which I like. Not going to lie.
“But, yeah, my phone is blowing up these past two weeks. I haven’t been able to check my Instagram, Twitter, everything.
“I’m enjoying every single moment of it.”
Kenin doesn’t benefit from Sharapova’s power but likes to dictate by standing close to the baseline and using her opponents’ pace.
She is a bundle of energy between points, marching to serve or receive serve, and often drops her racket when losing big points.
Another of her strengths is benefiting from a high tennis IQ, said seven-time grand slam champion Mats Wilander.
“She’s one of the smartest players I’ve seen on the women’s tour,” Wilander, known as one of the smartest players on tour during his day, told CNN.
Kenin vowed to try to enjoy the moment when confronting Muguruza on Saturday, when the temperature is expected to drop to a high of around 30 degrees Celsius.
“This is so exciting. Literally butterflies,” she said.
“I’m just going to also focus on what I need to do, focus on my game. I got here, it’s time to shine, do the best I can. Like I said, hopefully do something more special.”
On recent form, Kenin’s run to the final is less surprising than Muguruza’s.
The Spaniard endured a largely forgettable 2019 and cut ties with longtime coach Sam Sumyk.
Muguruza reunited with future Hall of Famer Conchita Martinez — who was in her corner when she won Wimbledon in 2017 — at the end of last season and the move has paid instant dividends.
Muguruza has toppled three top-10 seeds after entering the Australian Open with an illness.
Like Kenin, Muguruza saved set points in the first — two serving at 6-5 and two more in the tiebreak.
She took advantage of her third set point when the Romanian netted a forehand with Muguruza stranded at the net.
Halep then broke her racket in disgust and shook her head in her chair.
Muguruza rallied from a break deficit in the second set — again like Kenin — mixing her aggressive baseline play with some uncharacteristic sublime defending.
Halep, one of the top movers in the game, would have been proud.
The two-hour tussle ended in similar fashion to the first set conclusion, Halep erring on a makeable passing shot — this time with the backhand — with Muguruza in trouble.
Halep wished the roof was closed on Rod Laver Arena to shield the players from the heat but “rules are rules.”
Kenin won her lone head-to-head with Muguruza in Beijing last October in three sets.
One day Kenin hopes to live in New York, more specifically on the Upper East Side in Manhattan.
“I just love it there,” she said. “I feel like Central Park, all of Fifth Avenue, all those shops.”
Kenin is guaranteed $2 million Australian ($1.35 million) by reaching the final — not to mention cracking the top 10 — so will have more money to spend.
But just as Muguruza, she would also like to leave Melbourne with the winners’ trophy.