Ash Barty has sent viewers into a spin at the Fed Cup, with a moment of magic against former World No.1 Victoria Azarenka.
Australia’s top-ranked star went into the clash needing a win to get Australia back on level terms after Sam Stosur’s defeat to Belarus’ Aryna Sabalenka in the opening semi-final rubber.
Queensland’s world No.9 beat the two-time Australian Open champion and former world No.1 7-6 (7-2) 6-3 to level the tie at 1-1 after Sabalenko pipped Stosur in a near three-hour contest – 7-5 5-7 6-3 – earlier in the day.
Barty was up against it in a hard-fought opening set – made to fight off four breaks points before holding serve late in the set.
But it was a sensational point earlier on where Barty grabbed a break point courtesy of a stroke of genius.
Azarenka had the Aussie pinned deep behind the baseline after a big forehand down the line that seemed to leave Barty in as spot of bother.
However, the 22-year-old fashioned an extraordinary backhand slice winner down the same line, wrong-footing Azarenka to give the Aussie a crucial break.
“What a touch of brilliance from Ash Barty!” Todd Woodbridge exclaimed in commentary.
“I’ll tell you what, Ken Rosewall in his prime would have been proud of that.”
Australian spearhead Barty showed all the traits that had propelled her into the world’s top 10 this year to delight a capacity Pat Rafter Arena crowd that Stosur rated better than any home Fed Cup tie in her career.
Barty looms as the key as Australia chase their first Fed Cup title since 1974, while captain Alicia Molik has the option of injecting either Priscilla Hon or Daria Gavrilova in place of Stosur on Sunday.
Barty recovered from 0-40 down at 5-5 to stay on serve and trailed 2-0 in the tie-break before a clever sliced backhand kicked off a run of seven straight points to claim a 59-minute set.
She was able to weather the Azarenka storm with terrific defence and court coverage, while her serve steadied after four consecutive breaks earlier in the set.
The pair traded breaks again early in the second set but Barty found another gear, breaking her current doubles partner to love to go ahead 3-2 and serve her way home to end Azarenka’s 13-match Fed Cup winning streak.
Australian captain Alicia Molik speaks after Ash Barty's win.
— Wide World of Sports (@wwos) April 20, 2019
Earlier, Stosur played what she described as one of her best matches in Brisbane only to fall frustratingly short of a surprise defeat of the world No.10.
Her gutsy loss featured 17 breaks of serve, with Sabalenka destructive on two fronts as she mixed brilliant tennis with regular unforced errors.
Every time she looked to seize control Stosur would find a way back in, with five consecutive breaks of Sabalenka’s serve in the second set helping the Australian get back on level terms.
Sabalenka steadied in the third set and a series of brutal forehand winners landed her the crucial break as the rowdy crowd armed with horns and a drum rode every point.
“I was disappointed not to get through that one and win it but I don’t think here’s a lot I could change or do differently,” Stosur, who rated it the best Fed Cup atmosphere she’d experienced, said.
“I’m really proud of that performance … really enjoyed the moment and was enjoying the crowd.
“I hit the ball well, hit it hard … a couple of moments in that third set she came up with some clutch returns and that’s why she’s top 10.”
The winner in Brisbane will host either France or Romania in November’s final.