The heat was on in Melbourne on the second day of this year’s Australian Open, as players persisted in the baking Victoria sun with temperatures reaching as high as 39ºC. The swelter had little affect on the top seeds that were in action however, on a day where upsets were few and far between and the big names fired their way into the second round.
Tennis stars don’t come much bigger than Serena Williams, who chasing her 23rd grand slam arrived Down Under with plenty of motivation, but also under a little scrutiny. The 35-year-old had only played two competitive matches since her exit from last year’s US Open, with one of those ending in defeat last week in Auckland.
Should Serena lift the Daphne Akhurst Memorial Cup at the end of this tournament, she’ll surpass the Open Era record of 22 majors she currently shares with Steffi Graff and stand just one behind the great Australian Margaret Court’s all-time tally of 24. She made a promising start to doing just that on Tuesday, dispatching Switzerland’s Belinda Bencic in straight sets, 6-4, 6-3.
With Martin Luther King Day still being celebrated back in the States as Serena stepped on court, she walked out in a black t-shirt sporting the word ‘EQUALITY’ in white capital letters. When it came to the tennis however, Bencic could not equal the force of the six-time Australian Open champion who needed just 1 hour and 19 minutes to get the victory.
Elsewhere, the Czech Republic’s Lucie Safarova – a former quarter finalist here – was busy saving nine match points against the shrieking Yanina Wickmayer after losing the first set and serving to stay in the second. Safarova incredibly struck winners to save each of the first seven, five of which came during her service game at 5-6 behind, the rest during a tie-break in which she found herself 5-1 down. She would decisively go on to take that set 9-7 in the breaker and, with Wickmayer looking spent after failing to put Safarova away in the blistering heat, won the final set 6-1.
Safarova’s reward for her herculean effort? A second round match against Serena.
Current men’s world number nine Rafael Nadal had a much more comfortable first round outing against Florian Mayer, a man who had previously tied the 14-time major winner in their head-to-head results. The 2009 champion also came through in straights, beating the German 6-3, 6-4, 6-4 and showing glimpses of his imperious best, a sight that tennis fans have seen all too little of in the past two years.
Next up Nadal will meet Cypriot Marcos Baghdatis, the 2006 runner-up, but it’s the prospect of Nadal’s potential third-round encounter that is most intriguing. That could be world number 24 Alexander Zverev, the 19-year-old prodigy hotly tipped as a future world number one, who progressed by beating Robin Haase but had to do it the hard way.
Zverev needed to come from a set behind to win in five, 6-2, 3-6, 5-7, 6-3, 6-2 and record a maiden win in Melbourne, in a match that also marked the first time had come back in a five-set match after being two sets to one down. The German teenager has the carrot of the Nadal tie on offer if he can navigate his way through round two, but there he will meet another hot young talent in 18-year-old American Frances Tiafoe, the current world no.108.
If any of the big guns had a tricky looking first-round draw it was Novak Djokovic, who had to navigate his way through Fernando Verdasco, a man who had proved troublesome for the Serb in Doha just last week. Verdasco had won the opening set in the Qatar Open quarter-final before eventually going down stubbornly in three. If the first set was any indication here, Djokovic was going to have a much easier night’s work.
The world number two raced to take the opener 6-1, but then in the second set the match evolved into an error-strewn encounter that appeared to be a leveler. With five consecutive breaks of serve at one point, neither man could hold their grip on momentum in a period that seemed bizarre and certainly not vintage Djokovic. Held to the men’s tour as a beacon of stamina and endurance, the 12-time major champion looked fatigued by the end of the set that reached it’s climax in a draining tie-break, but triumphed in the breaker 7-4. The third set more closely resembled the first, with Djokovic winning 6-2 to advance.
Karolina Pliskova and Dominika Cibulkova – Left Field Sport’s tips for the title – both fired ominous warnings to their rivals as they both won in straight sets. Pliskova obliterated Sara Sorribes Tormo 6-2, 6-0 to progress and will play the winner of Anna Blinkova’s tie with Monica Niculescu in the second round. Cibulkova advanced besting Denisa Allertova 7-5, 6-2, winning the final five games of the match en route. She’ll meet Su-Wei Hsieh, who went through after the mid-match retirement of Karin Knapp.
Women’s number 3 Agnieszka Radwanska also advanced, defeating Bulgaria’s Tsvetana Pironkova in three sets, 6-1, 4-6, 6-1.
It was a fantastic day for the British contingent, as three more singles players reached round two. Johanna Konta, a suprise semi-finalist last year, saw off Kirsten Flipkens 7-5, 6-2 on Margaret Court Arena, whilst Kyle Edmund triumphed over Colombia’s Santiago Giraldo and Heather Watson caused what was perhaps the day’s only major upset.
Watson defeated home favourite Sam Stosur – Australia’s 18th seed – in a three-set battle by scores of 6-3, 3-6, 6-0 and will next take on American Jennifer Brady. Adding to the wins by compatriots Andy Murray and Dan Evan yesterday, that’s five Brits through to the second round for the second consecutive tournament after last year’s US Open.
But by far the most thrilling – and certainly the most draining – match of the day came courtesy of Ivo Karlovic’s 84-game epic with Horacio Zeballos, where the mountainous Croatian came from two sets down to win in the longest fifth set in Australian Open history.
Karlovic fired a record-breaking 75 aces in the match, winning 6-7(6), 3-6, 7-5, 6-2, 22-20…. 22-20! in five hours and 14 minutes. 38 aces came in the fifth set alone and the 37-year-old has now hit 11,689 aces in his career, by some distance the all-time career record and one that may never be beaten.