Australian Open 2018 Journal Day Two: Djokovic Returns and Losing Streaks

It’s one thing to stay up watching tennis all night and sleep in the next day. It’s another to stay up watching tennis all night and have to be up and active the next day, as well.

Sleep is for the weak. I’m weak, and I don’t fancy being ill for the second half of the fortnight. This being the case, I’ll regretfully be hitting ‘record’ a lot more than I would like to over the next two days.

The first slice of action I managed to drag myself for up on Tuesday was the final set of Novak Djokovic’s clash with American Donald Young. The latter man was once a talked-about US prospect. Now he’s a 28-year-old overshadowed by countrymen and woman who have progressed further and faster than himself.

My simple interest in this clash was to see whether Djokovic was playing with the quality and conviction of a title contender – which I suspected to be the case. The six-time Australian Open champion had not competed in an official match since retiring from his Wimbledon 2017 quarterfinal match, but he looked promising during the Tiebreak Tens tournament ahead of Melbourne. More importantly, there was a different feeling when he talked about his pleasure and comfort when being back on court. Previously – as he struggled with form and injury last season, and then with fitness to return during the off-season – I had wondered if the Serb was trying to speak his wishes into existence.

Not so on Tuesday. The 6-1 6-2 6-4 scoreline by which Djokovic progressed to the second round is a statement in itself, given that it’s been six months since he last competed for ranking points. Bar his altered service motion (to protect his elbow, the source of his physical woes) and the occasional shank, you would be forgiven for not realising that the Serb had taken any time away from the tour. The no. 14 seed played confident tennis, moving into the court and reading the ball with zero issues.

Still, we should probably be cautious when it comes to how much we can take away from this match in particular. Mr Not-so-Young had a shocker of a third set, at least, as he regularly missed the mark on neutral shots and was continuously unable to match Djokovic’s consistency. While the sporting legend appeared to put on a fabulous display, a second round match with hot-and-cold Gael Monfils should test the 12-time Grand Slam champion a little more than his first round opponent did.

Someone who seriously got put through their paces on Tuesday was Petra Kvitova – and sadly for the two-time Wimbledon champion, it was not a duel from which she emerged unscathed.

It was hard to discern from the offset whether or not this was a tough draw for the Czech. Petkovic is a former Grand Slam semifinalist and top ten player, but has struggled considerably over the last couple of years – which included multiple tough major losses. But given that Kvitova herself has endured a nightmare few years in Melbourne, failing to progress beyond the third round since her 2012 semifinal run, this had the potential to be a battle – whether or not it was a quality one.

While it did not always have the level, the clash certainly had the intensity. Petkovic led by 4-0 in the deciding set before Kvitova relocated her precision and came roaring back – saving four match points on serve at 4-5 down. The sometimes-lethal lefty served for the match twice, but Petkovic steeled herself and cleared her mind to play smart and precise tennis on both occasions.

Kvitova looked to be tiring towards the end of the match, revealing afterwards that she was cramping a little in the latter stages. Nevertheless, she continued to go for her shots and step up her game in some key moments. At one stage, the match certainly looked on her racquet. Ultimately, a few tactical mistakes – which Petkovic jumped to take advantage of – and a rally of unforced errors ended her chances, with the 27-year-old serving a double fault to go down 6-3 4-6 10-8 after nearly three hours of tennis.

Had Kvitova come through such a close match, it could have been the long-awaited changing of her fortunes in Melbourne. I myself – in the most disgraceful predictions I have ever drawn up – took a risk and predicted the 27th seed to make the final four. It is harder to say whether world no. 82 Petkovic will be able to capitalise on her recent triumph, especially given the fact that Simona Halep potentially awaits in round three. All the same, a first meeting with fellow non-seeder Lauren Davis is full of opportunity. The American has never made it beyond round three in Melbourne, while Petkovic entered the last eight in 2011.

In what is both a good and a bad thing, there were too many great collisions happening on Tuesday to keep track of them all in great detail. Daniil Medvedev’s clash with Thanasi Kokkinakis – who was making his first appearance at his home Slam since 2015 – jumped out at me immediately: A contest between two 21-year-olds who, despite their differing rankings, currently play an incredibly similar standard of tennis. The match lived up to the billing, with a close 6-2 6-7(6) 7-6(8) 6-4 result going the way of recent Sydney International champion Medvedev – but it was hard not to feel for Kokkinakis. The home player called upon the trainer multiple times during the match, telling him that his “whole body was a shambles”, and the raucous crowd was not enough to help him survive Medvedev’s big-moment brilliance… and his own mounting unforced error count.

And Kokkinakis was not the only young Aussie to fall. Alex de Minaur – whose rise I enjoyed in relative peace for much of last season, before back-to-back ATP semifinals in 2018 christened him this year’s Denis Shapovalov – was up against Tomas Berdych in a standout first round encounter. The opening stages were close, but with big serves, skill at the net and attacking groundstrokes, Berdych was not about to buckle. The former semifinalist responded to dropping the second set in style: losing just one of the next 13 games to complete a 6-3 3-6 6-0 6-1 victory over the wild card. While de Minaur – for all his speed, nerve and energy – was simply outplayed in these final moments, I had been expecting the unusual numbers of wins at top level to catch up with him this fortnight.

The final match I watched to completion on Tuesday was Federer’s 6-3 6-4 6-3 triumph over Aljaz Bedene: a clash that would have been streamed on multiple channels in the UK if this contest had taken place two months prior, but instead didn’t make the national screen until the end of the first set.

Federer may have dropped more games on his way to round two than Djokovic and Nadal, but his opponent seemingly emerged with a much clearer mindset and attacking mentality than either Young or Victor Estrella Burgos. Bedene’s best ever ATP result came at the beginning of a season, when he reached the final of Chennai in January last season, but the Slovenian is short on big name victories. Apparently this allowed him to free up against the Fed, with Bedene reading the ball well, moving in good time and nailing his fair share of return winners and forehands down the line.

But the biggest question was whether Federer would maintain his scintillating form of last season – and the defending champion looked promising in these early stages. I maintain that the lack of pressure on his shoulders was a major factor in the 36-year-old’s Melbourne triumph last season – a moment which he heralded the “best of his season, hands down, no question” – and his reaction to being the man to beat this time around is of great interest.

Aside from the many attempts to throw the spotlight off his chances – “Nadal and Djokovic are the favourites”, “I know I won’t be as good as last year” and words along those lines – Federer reacted by getting his head down and getting on with it.

Without going deep into analysis, it was more of the same from the world no. 2. Mixing up the serve to great effect, finding his spots with ease and nailing every smash from mid air, the four-time event champion ensured that Bedene’s best efforts were simply not enough.

There is always plenty to work on – including break point conversion, after the Swiss star capitalised on just four of 13 opportunities – but none of Federer’s errors on Tuesday came at a moment to cause him any serious bother. With 41 winners to Bedene’s 21, his opening 99 minute victory sets him up for what should be an equally breezy clash with Jan-Lennard Struff.

But then again, the beauty of this sport is that you just never know.

OTHER STUFF FROM DAY TWO

THE QUIETEST UPSET OF DAY TWO was Lukas Lacko’s 6-7(5) 7-5 6-4 7-6(4) defeat of 22nd seed Milos Raonic in three hours and 22 minutes. It says a lot about the strange, injury-plagued state of the men’s tour that the 2016 Wimbledon runner-up – on fire in Melbourne two years ago – could exit to the world no. 93 without even a little drama surrounding the event. Raonic is yet to really get going this season after physical woes wrecked the latter half of his 2017 campaign, and it could be a while before we see the serve-crushing, groundstroke-slaying Canadian of 2016 return to the scene.

THE MOST ABYSMAL EXTENDED LOSING STREAK OF DAY TWO was world no. 11 (?!) Kristina Mladenovic’s, continued by her loss to Ana Bogdan. The Frenchwoman’s soft draw of the world no. 104 did not even result in a close match, with the Romanian’s 6-3 6-2 victory extending Mladenovic’s losing streak to a mind-boggling 15 matches. With even Eugenie Bouchard, who has fallen outside the world’s top 100, bagging a victory on Tuesday, the continued free-fall of a woman who was playing top class tennis less than a year ago is pretty abysmal.

To top it all off, Mladenovic could hit a career-high ranking of world no. 9 when this event is over – which can only lead to serious questions about the current state of the WTA tour.

THE MOST IMPRESSIVE COMEBACK OF DAY TWO was delivered by no. 18 seed Ashleigh Barty – the lone Aussie to rise victorious on Tuesday after a 6-7(2) 6-4 6-4 defeat of Aryna Sabalenka. To understand why this result is a notable piece of work, you have to delve beneath the fact that Belarus’ Sabalenka is ranked world no. 96. The 19-year-old Fed Cup heroine is one of the WTA’s fastest rising stars of the present, with a variety to her game that could soon rival Barty’s repertoire. Given that Australian women have often struggled under the Melbourne microscope in recent years, the home hope did commendably to collect herself and pull out the win on the grand stage of Rod Laver Arena.

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Thanks for reading! New journal entries will be uploaded for each day of the Australian Open – follow The Tennis Journal on Twitter to keep track!

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