Barty's Open prospects soar as seeds crash out
ASHLEIGH Barty's Australian Open title prospects have soared after another day of carnage at Melbourne Park.
World No.2 Karolina Pliskova and sixth seed Belinda Bencic joined 2019 champion Naomi Osaka and seven-time winner Serena Willams on the Open scrap heap with shock third-round exits.
With Barty elevated to outright favourite to break Australia's 42-year Open title drought, the highest-ranked obstacle in her path to the final is world No.7 Petra Kvitova, while the bottom half of the draw has also been blown wide open.
Wimbledon champion Simona Halep avoided the exodus of big-name stars with a stress-free 6-1 6-4 win on Saturday over Yulia Putintseva to emerge as the finals favourite from the depleted bottom half.
Russian Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova snapped a run of six straight losses to Pliskova to end the big-serving Czech's campaign with a shock 7-6 (7-4) 7-6 (7-3) win on Rod Laver Arena in the day's first big upset.
Bencic bombed out in a 6-0 6-1 capitulation at the hands of Estonia's Anett Kontaveit.
Pliskova was previously unbeaten in 2020, having won the season-opening Brisbane International and two earlier matches in Melbourne.
But the second seed never looked comfortable in Saturday's warmer conditions, throwing her racquet in disgust at one changeover and generally labouring about the court throughout the two-hour, 25-minute encounter.
Twice previously a quarter-finalist in Melbourne, including last year, Pavlyuchenkova scored her 33rd victory over a top-10 rival - but her first against Pliskova.
"I am really happy," the tournament's 30th seed said.
"I know we always say we want to enjoy, but I did enjoy. I had goosebumps after some points.
"It was really nice to get a win and beat Karolina for the first time - it was amazing.
"Honestly, I was trying to think 'OK, if I take at least one or two games on her serve, it would be amazing', because she serves so good.
"She is the ace queen on tour. That was my goal - to return well today."
Pavlyuchenkova moves on to play Angelique Kerber for a quarter-final spot.
Germany's 2016 champion and former world No.1 continued her quiet progression through the draw with a hard-fought 6-2 6-7 (4-7) 6-3 win over Italian Camila Giorgi.
Eyeing her her first grand slam quarter-final, Kontaveit faces Iga Swiatek on Monday, with the unheralded Pole ousting Croatian 19th seed Donna Vekic 7-5 6-3.
Fifth-seeded Elina Svitolina, runner-up to Barty at the 2019 WTA Finals, also plays on Saturday.