It doesn’t feel like six months have passed since the 2017 Australian Open – let alone a whole year. Last season, from not-quite-so-Great Britain, I watched more of the tournament in real-time than ever before: spending many nights on the sofa, catching 30 minutes or an hour of sleep every so often between matches, and even dragging myself up at 2.30am on my birthday to catch the semifinals.
They say Sleep Is For The Weak. I say Sleep Is For The Sensible People Who Need To Get Up And Work The Next Day. It just so happens that the tennis is my work right now, and therefore a legitimate excuse to stay up most nights and completely wreck havoc to my body clock.
French Open champions Jelena Ostapenko and Francesca Schiavone launched the action on Rod Laver Arena this season. Despite Schiavone’s years of experience, I was fully expecting the 20-year-old Latvian to come out on top. Schiavone has drawn many a tough Grand Slam opener in recent years without bagging a single upset, and her counter-punching game was sure to be pounced upon by Ostapenko’s kill-from-the-offset aggression.
While the first few games of each set were surprisingly close, the no. 7 seed managed to claim victory in straight sets: 6-1 6-4. Ultimately, the effect of Schiavone’s slice and consistency wore off the moment Ostapenko channelled her shots within the sidelines, with the defending Roland Garros champion dictating the rallies and competing well from all areas of the court. But what should be of most encouragement to the title contender going forward is the way she came back from 4-1 down in the second set. Although the deficit featured only a single break, it had the feel of a larger hole. Nevertheless, Ostapenko did not waver – appearing more inspired under the pressure of the situation.
It was by no means a perfect performance from the world no. 7 – who, as usual, racked up almost as many unforced errors as winners in her pursuit of dominance. But we already know that Ostapenko has the game to win major tournaments. The question now is whether she has the mentality to do it as a seeded contender, and her late-match comeback is a positive sign.
Alas, for 2017 finalist Venus Williams, there were few positive signs during the no. 5 seed’s defeat to former top ten star Belinda Bencic – who beat six straight Grand Slam finalists, including Serena Williams, to win the Rogers Cup back in 2016.
Despite Venus’ 4-0 head-to-head lead in their ‘rivalry’, this clash had been hyped to the skies. The American was entering the event having played a single match this season, which ended in a close defeat to Angelique Kerber in Sydney last week. Bencic, meanwhile, struggled for more than a year after being struck by injury woes, and only began to rediscover her winning ways towards the end of 2017. Cutting down on her off-season, she has been building up rhythm and steam over the past few weeks: winning ITF titles, and partnering Roger Federer to Hopman Cup triumph.
The steady progress evidenced itself on Monday, when Bencic played with just the right depth, consistency and timing to bag a well-deserved win.
Back when she was a top junior, and then a rising WTA teenager, I struggled to see what players found so complicated about dueling Bencic. The groundstrokes were fluid and appeared fairly easy to read, while her second serve was a little better than the standard of those at your local tennis club. But against Venus on Monday, Bencic produced a performance of mental supremacy, as she timed her returns of the American’s flat groundstrokes to perfection: absorbing the pace, and redirecting the ball with surprising ease to keep her opponent on the run. It was placement over power for Bencic, who moved like lightning and read the Williams serve remarkably well. The way she steeled herself to hold serve, twice, when Venus was making a push at the end of the second set left little to be argued with. If Bencic continues with this form, and a serve much improved from her junior days, she is practically a cert for the last 16.
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Still, it did not have to be a faultless display from the Swiss hopeful – for Venus Williams never really got going. The American rarely appeared comfortable, and her groundstrokes lacked some of their usual pace. Spatterings of unforced errors cost her dearly, and time and again the seven-time major champion was made to pay for making iffy tactical decisions. Winning a disastrously low percentage of first serves at 57, Venus did not seem to know where to send her shots – which is at least partly due to Bencic’s relentless energy, which saw her smack several gasp-worthy forehand winners on the run.
This is undoubtedly deeply disappointing for Venus, who had not lost before the last 16 of a major since her first round Melbourne exit in 2016. But – as she did after that Australian Open tumble versus Johanna Konta – the only way forward for the tennis legend is to prove, once again, her undying ability to bounce back.
The final match I saw on day one was Jo-Wilfried Tsonga’s collision with Kevin King: a remarkable American qualifier who underwent hip surgery at the end of 2015, and has qualified for just two ATP main draws in his career. Per website Tennis Life, the American did not even possess an ITF ranking when he graduated from college aged 21 – but nobody watching the Australian Open could have guessed. Firing low passing shots, adept at the net and big with his serve, King impressed as he secured his spot in a first Grand Slam main draw, and looked energised for what lay ahead.
Still, Jo-Wilfried Tsonga was in another league to anything King had encountered before. While he has not repeated his explosive run to the Melbourne final in 2008, Tsonga is one of the most complete talents on tour – and thanks to the many ATP absentees, he finally found himself kicking off a Slam campaign on a show court once again.
By scoreline alone, it does not appear that the Frenchman hung around to relish the moment. A 6-4 6-4 6-1 scoreline is pretty convincing, especially for a man who often drops a set simply for the heck of it. The no. 15 seed served bombs when he needed them, unleashed the forehand and put his opponent on the run.
But there are plentiful things to work on. While Tsonga still has the weapons to trouble any top player, it’s been almost two years since he last upended any of the ‘Big Four’ – despite possessing multiple wins over each member of the quartet. And, almost comically, the issue appears to be brainfreeze.
Tsonga has often talked about playing instinctively. That’s why he competed for a while without a coach: a move that played its part in getting him to no. 5 in the world. But these days, Tsonga’s instinctive tennis can run away with itself, and it seems that he occasionally plays too fast to engage his brain. On Monday, one point away from holding serve, Tsonga had a put-away forehand that he could have smashed down the line for a winner. Instead, he picked the more complicated option and played an off-forehand into the deuce court – where King was waiting to nail yet another pass on the sideline.
It is this kind of incident that may simply extend a match against a lower-ranked opponent, but costs Tsonga against the game’s elite.
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The world no. 15 nailed his marks for much of his time on court during his first round clash. The more matches he plays, the more comfortable he will become, and the more he will find his groove.
But unfortunately for Tsonga, last year at the majors did not allow him that time for development. An inspired Renzo Olivo edged him out in the French Open first round, giant-slayer Sam Querrey ousted him from the last 32 at Wimbledon, and teenage sensation Denis Shapovalov blew him off the court in the second round of the US Open.
Next up in Melbourne, Tsonga has a chance to avenge that defeat – after Shapovalov destroyed fellow rising star Stefanos Tsitsipas to become the world no. 15’s next opponent.
There will be no room for a brainfreeze.
OTHER STUFF FROM DAY ONE
DAY ONE’S MOST IMPRESSIVE WINNER was Rafael Nadal, the event’s top seed and 2017 Australian Open finalist. Due to knee injury, the Spaniard had not competed since withdrawing from last season’s ATP Finals, and was making his first ever appearance without his uncle – Toni Nadal – as his official coach. So far, so good, after he wasted no time in thrashing Victor Estrella Burgos of the Dominican Republic 6-1 6-1 6-1.
DAY ONE’S YOUNGEST WINNER was 2017 Australian Open junior girls’ champion Marta Kostyuk – who not only scored her first ever Grand Slam main draw win, but also her first tour-level main draw win full stop on Monday. Kostyuk’s 6-2 6-2 defeat of former US Open semifinalist Shuai Peng – secured in less than an hour – makes the world no. 521 the first 15-year-old Grand Slam main draw winner since CiCi Bellis at the 2015 US Open. She’s now set for a winnable encounter with Aussie wild card Olivia Rogowska. Not half bad.
DAY ONE’S LONGEST MEN’S SINGLES MATCH was Kyle Edmund’s mammoth upset of US Open finalist Kevin Anderson. The British 23-year-old was one minute shy of four hours in dispatching the South African giant 6-7(4) 6-3 3-6 6-3 6-4, and a rather cushy section of the draw means that Edmund is more likely than not to make the quarter-finals.
DAY ONE’S LONGEST WOMEN’S SINGLES MATCH was Irina Camelia Begu’s upset of former semifinalist Ekaterina Makarova, in a battle extending the three hour mark by one minute. The 31st seed bowed out 3-6 6-4 8-6, leaving Begu to take on Petra Martic in round two.
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