Massive plot twist as Ash Barty continues clay-court dominance
Ash Barty has continued her incredible form at the Italian Open as another one of her biggest rivals went crashing out on Thursday.
Naomi Osaka, Serena Williams and Simona Halep all exited the clay-court event on Wednesday, and on Thursday it was Aryna Sabalenka's turn.
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The Belarusian who snapped Barty's 16-match clay-court winning streak in the Madrid Open final last weekend fell 7-5 6-3 to American teenage sensation Coco Gauff.
The latest shock loss has put Barty in the box seat to win her fourth title of the year.
The World No.1 surged into her seventh quarter-final this year after continuing her clay-court charge in Rome.
The Australian star dispatched Russian Veronika Kudermetova 6-3 6-3 to improve her tour-best win-loss record in 2021 to 27-4.
Kudermetova has enjoyed a fine season herself, securing a maiden WTA title on green clay in Charleston in April.
But the World No.26 was unable to stop the Queensland juggernaut on Europe's red dirt as Barty once again emphatically underlined her favouritism for a second French Open crown in three years.
In an extraordinary return since sitting out almost 12 full months during the coronavirus pandemic, Barty has reached at least the quarter-finals in seven of the eight events she's contested in 2021.
She's won three titles from four finals and is well on track for a fourth as her greatest threats continue to tumble in Rome.
Ash Barty excited for clash with Coco Gauff
And she is more than ready to cross swords for the first time with 17-year-old sensation Gauff.
"Coco's shown she loves to bring her best tennis against the players that challenge her the most," Barty said.
"She's played an exceptional tournament ... it's going to be an exciting match no doubt."
Coco go OFF 😤
🇺🇸 @CocoGauff stuns Madrid champion Sabalenka 7-5, 6-3 to reach the Rome quarterfinals!#IBI21 pic.twitter.com/sXD6wrmDwe
— wta (@WTA) May 13, 2021
With crowds allowed back in the stands on Thursday, Barty was in her element, enjoying the "cool vibe" of one of the great modern clay-court arenas.
"It's intimidating, without a doubt. Once I walked out there, it was a bit of a 'wow' factor," Barty enthused.
"The crowds were on the grounds, which is really exciting for us players.
"You forget how steep the stands are. Literally feels like everyone's kind of surrounding you and on top of you."
Meanwhile, fifth seed Elina Svitolina eased past former French Open and Wimbledon champion Garbine Muguruza 6-4, 6-2 and next meets Poland's Iga Swiatek - the 15th seed.
Six of the WTA's top 10 players have already exited the Foro Italico, including World No.2 Osaka, four-time Rome winner Williams, Sofia Kenin and Petra Kvitova.
Defending champion Halep, the third seed, was forced to pull out with a calf injury in her second-round match.
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