It's now Ash Barty's Australian Open to lose

MELBOURNE, Australia -- Twelve months ago, a golden opportunity presented itself for Ashleigh Barty to become the first homegrown player to win the Australian Open in 43 years. In the space of six enthralling hours on Day 5 in 2020, the previous three women's champions in Serena Williams, Naomi Osaka and Caroline Wozniacki all suffered shock defeats, but Barty was unable to capitalize on the favorable draw and fell to eventual champion and 14th seed Sofia Kenin in the semifinals.

Things are quite different this year. The COVID-19 pandemic has led to "player bubbles," no linespeople on the court, and an abundance of face masks and hand sanitizer. The scene at the Australian Open only got stranger last Friday evening when Victoria was put into a snap five-day lockdown in an effort to contain another spike in coronavirus cases, meaning matches would have to be played in empty arenas until restrictions could be lifted.

But amongst all of the unfamiliarity, one aspect of the tournament feels eerily reminiscent to last year. Barty once again has a sensational chance to match the achievement of Christine O'Neil over four decades ago and hoist the Daphne Akhurst Memorial Cup.

On Monday evening, the Queenslander booked her place in the quarterfinals with a comfortable 6-3, 6-4 win against unseeded American Shelby Rogers, extending her unbeaten run on home soil in 2021 to nine matches. Barty's loss to Kenin at last year's Australian Open is her only defeat in Australia over her past 20 matches played here.

Barty showed Rogers why she has the No. 1 seeding next to her name, sending out an ominous warning to the remaining women in the draw with a combination of slices, mixed in with baseline power and jaw-dropping defence.

"It's exciting to be through to another quarterfinal," Barty said after the match. "I just love being at home, I love being in Australia and I love being able to share this with all my friends and family as well.

"I think if you would have told me a few months ago this is the start to the year we'd have, we'd take it with a massive smile on our face."

Barty needed just 71 minutes to complete the match and move into the last eight, a stage she has reached in Melbourne every year since 2019. She will now face 25th seed Karolina Muchova, who prevailed 7-6(5), 7-5 against Elise Mertens on Margaret Court Arena. The only meeting between Barty and Muchova came in the third round of the 2018 US Open, with Barty winning 6-3, 6-4.

"I remember that match in New York. I remember coming off the court and saying she can play, she's a hell of a player," Barty said. "Now we get another opportunity to do it in a quarterfinal of a Grand Slam and it will be a brilliant match. I know she's got the ability to maneuver the ball all around the court, play with variety, play with shape."

As expected, Barty is already a heavy favourite with bookmakers to defeat the Czech and win through to the Australian Open semifinals for the second straight year. Should she progress, her last four tie would be against either 22nd seed Jennifer Brady or fellow American Jessica Pegula.

The draw has been opening up more and more for Barty as the tournament has progressed. Reigning champion Kenin and 2019 US Open winner Bianca Andreescu, who were on Barty's side of the draw, both exited in week one after shock second round defeats.

On Day 6, sixth seed Karolina Pliskova and 11th seed Belinda Bencic bowed out of the tournament, leaving Barty and world No. 5 Elina Svitolina as the only top 15 ranked players remaining in the top half of the draw.

But with Pegula upsetting Svitolina early on Day 8, it's put Barty in an almighty position to become the first Australian since Lleyton Hewitt in 2005 to reach a singles final at Melbourne Park. It's a golden opportunity which may be even better than what she was presented with last year, and failed to capitalise on.

Meanwhile, on the other half of the draw, Serena, Osaka, world No. 2 Simona Halep and the crafty Hsieh Su-wei will battle it out for the other spot in Saturday night's final, a feat three of the four have achieved previously.

Of the four women remaining on Barty's half of the draw, the Australian is the only one to have reached a Slam quarterfinal. In fact, there is just one major title between the quarterfinal quartet on Barty's side, as opposed to a staggering 28 on the other.

There's no doubt which side of the draw Barty would prefer to be on. But can she take advantage?