When the newly appointed Australian Diamonds coach Stacey Marinkovich called Cara Koenen to let her know that she had been selected in the squad to play New Zealand in the upcoming Constellation Cup, Koenen remembers bursting into tears.
We are down to just eight men and eight women at this year’s Australian Open, and while all eyes are on a possible Novak Djokovic versus Rafael Nadal men’s championship showdown, we are all watching with interest to see if Ashleigh Barty can become our first homegrown champion in 43 years.
Barty continued her smooth run through the draw, defeating Shelby Rogers in straight sets to progress to the quarter-finals at Melbourne Park for the third consecutive year.
The 24-year-old Queenslander is now the hot favourite to reach the final, which would be the first by a local since Lleyton Hewitt’s rollercoaster run in 2005, where he ended up losing to Marat Safin.
While the top seed has been going about her business, she has also seen three of the biggest threats on her side of the draw – defending champion Sofia Kenin, former world number one Karolina Pliskova and fifth seed Elina Svitolina – all crash out before the quarter-finals.
Barty next faces Karolina Muchova, who backed up her upset win over Pliskova by defeating 2018 semi-finalist Elise Mertens in straight sets.
This will be the second time Barty and Muchova meet at Grand Slam level, with the Australian having won their only previous encounter in straight sets at the 2018 US Open, in what was the latter’s debut at a major.
Earlier yesterday, Svitolina was defeated in three sets by American giant killer Jessica Pegula, who earlier in the tournament had beaten two-time champion Victoria Azarenka and former US Open champion Samantha Stosur.
Pegula, 26, next goes on to face Jennifer Brady who enjoyed a straight-sets win over Donna Vekic, who despite being hampered by a right knee injury early in the second set lost it by just 7-5, having already dropped the first 6-1.
Given the upsets that have rocked the top half of the draw, it appears now that only complacency will stop Ashleigh Barty from reaching the final, which if she does, will just about guarantee blockbuster ratings for the host broadcaster, Channel Nine.
The two bottom-half women’s quarter-finals get underway today, with 2019 champion Naomi Osaka and Chinese Taipei veteran Hsieh Su-wei facing off in the afternoon, and Serena Williams and Simona Halep headlining the evening session.
Osaka appeared down and out in her fourth-round match against Garbine Muguruza, being down two match points in the ninth game before winning four straight games to claim the final set 7-5, breaking the Spaniard’s serve to love at the death.
It is the fourth time that the Japanese star has reached the quarter-finals at a major; in an ominous sign for the rest of the field, each time she has got this far at a major, she has gone on to win the championship.
She has also won four of her five meetings against Hsieh, including in the third round of the 2019 Australian Open where she had to come from a set down to win.
At 35, Hsieh will be playing in a Grand Slam quarter-final for the first time after nearly two decades on the WTA circuit. She is also the first Taiwanese women’s player to get this far at a major, after Lu Yen-hsun reached the final eight at Wimbledon in 2010 (he notably upset Andy Roddick en route).
The other quarter-final sees Williams face Halep at a major for the first time since the 2019 Wimbledon final, when the Romanian claimed her second Grand Slam title, handing the legendary American her worst defeat in a major final in the process.
Prior to that, the 39-year-old had won their previous five encounters, including in the quarter-finals of the 2016 US Open and here in the fourth round of the 2019 Australian Open, with both matches going three sets.
Both players were taken the distance in their fourth round matches, with Williams outlasting seventh seed Aryna Sabalenka in three sets and denying the Belarusian a maiden Grand Slam quarter-final berth, and Halep coming from a set down to defeat reigning French Open champion Iga Swiatek.
Such is the heavyweight nature of this match, it’s widely expected that whoever wins this match should go on to reach the final, but that is not to underestimate Osaka who remains one of the hot favourites to claim the first major title of 2021.
On the men’s side of things, fifth seed Stefanos Tsitsipas got a free pass into the quarter-finals after his Italian opponent, Matteo Berrettini, withdrew due to an abdominal strain. The pair were to have played on Rod Laver Arena following the Barty versus Rogers match last night.
Tsitsipas goes on to face second seed Rafael Nadal, who continued to plough his way through the draw after defeating Italian firebrand Fabio Fognini in straight sets.
The Spaniard raced through the first set losing just three games, but appeared to be challenged when he dropped serve early in the second, only to win four straight games from 4-2 down to win it 6-4 and thus claim a two-set lead.
He had also led 6-3, 6-4 the previous (and only) time he faced Fognini at a major – only for the Italian to run him down from behind, claiming an epic five-setter at the 2015 US Open.
As of 2021, it remains the only time Nadal has ever lost a match from two-sets-to-love up at Grand Slam level, though it was the second time overall after he also relinquished that advantage against Roger Federer in the final of the 2005 Miami Masters.
But there was to be no repeat of Fognini’s New York heroics from five-and-a-half years ago, as the King of Clay claimed the final set 6-2 to progress to the quarter-finals of the Australian Open for the 13th time in the past 15 years.
Nadal only requires three more wins to not only complete a double career Grand Slam, but also overtake the record of 20 major men’s singles titles which he currently shares with Roger Federer.
A win at the French Open later this year would also see him win a 22nd major men’s singles title, and cement himself as the greatest male tennis player of all time.
Russians Andrey Rublev and Daniil Medvedev lined up a quarter-final clash against each other in contrasting circumstances.
Rublev advanced when his Norwegian opponent, Casper Ruud, retired after dropping the first two sets, while Medvedev progressed to his first Australian Open quarter-final when he defeated Mackenzie McDonald in straight sets.
They are two of three Russian men to get this far at Melbourne Park, with the other – Aslan Karatsev – becoming the first qualifier to reach a major quarter-final since Bernard Tomic at Wimbledon in 2011, and the first to do it at the Australian Open since Goran Ivanisevic in 1989.
Karatsev will look to continue his magical run when he comes up against the seasoned Grigor Dimitrov, who sent third seed and last year’s finalist Dominic Thiem crashing out with a straight-sets victory on Sunday.
It is the fourth time that Dimitrov has reached the final eight at the Australian Open, and he will start the prohibitive favourite to reach his second semi-final here (and fourth at a major overall), where he would face the winner of the match between Novak Djokovic and Alexander Zverev.
Djokovic brushed aside concerns over a muscle tear, requiring four sets to defeat Milos Raonic, the result ensuring he remained undefeated against the Canadian overall. Raonic, however, was able to win a set against the Serb at Grand Slam level for the first time.
Sixth seed Zverev defeated another Serb, Dusan Lajovic, in straight sets to reach the final eight at Melbourne Park for the second consecutive year as he continues his bid to become the first man from his country to reach the final here since Rainer Schuettler in 2003.
Matches to watch on Day 9
Rod Laver Arena
Day session – play starts at 12:30pm
Hsieh Su-Wei (TPE) vs  Naomi Osaka (JPN)
Not before 3:00pm
[18[ Grigor Dimitrov (BUL) vs Aslan Karatsev (RUS)
Night session – play starts at 7:00pm
 Serena Williams vs  Simona Halep (ROU)
 Novak Djokovic (SRB) vs  Alexander Zverev (GER)