The Australian Open began three weeks late and under the shadow of the coronavirus pandemic, but the energy of the opening day of a Grand Slam was intact with fierce tennis, five-set battles and fashion statements.
There was the usual: defending champion Novak Djokovic cruising, Serena Williams starting strong with a Flo-Jo inspired outfit that turned heads, Naomi Osaka winning smooth and paying tribute to the Williams sisters, Nick Kyrgios being his loud self… you get the gist.
Then there was the slightly more unexpected: The 40-year-old Venus Williams winning at a Major again after first-round exits in 2020, the 2016 champion Angelique Kerber being stunned in her opener, and electronic line-calling being used on all courts.
Perhaps the best way to recap the day was in the contrasting results for two of the most promising young guns in the men’s and women’s fields – Bianca Andreescu’s hard-fought win on return after 15 months and Jannik Sinner’s heartbreaking loss on a second straight day of play to Denis Shapovalov.
Andreescu makes her much-awaited return
A statistic doing the rounds ahead of the tournament was that there are four women in the draw who had won their last Grand Slam match – French Open champion Iga Swiatek, US Open champions Naomi Osaka, Serena Williams (who had withdrawn after winning the first match at Roland Garros), and a name that we haven’t seen in a draw for a long time: 2019 US Open winner Bianca Andreescu.
The teen Major winner had taken the tennis world by storm by her performance in 2019 but was unable to even play in 2020 due to an injury and then the pandemic-disrupted calendar. The 20-year-old was to make her comeback as top seed in the warm-up Grampians Trophy, but pulled out as a precautionary measure after spending 14 days in hard lockdown after arriving in Australia.
Having not played a competitive match since suffering a left knee injury at the WTA Finals in October 2019, there was no way to judge how she would perform on court. Up against a lucky loser in Mihaela Buzarnescu, the scales were tipped in favour of the eighth seed but it turned out to be a challenging match as the Romanian took her the distance. But in a gritty display, the immensely talented Canadian showed that the framework of her game is intact despite 15 months away.
The turning point came when she was 0-40 down in an error-strewn game and had to save three break points at 3-3 in deciding set. She levelled at deuce with a brave, high-risk display that produced three winners off her cracking groundstrokes. A rattled Buzarnescu then made two straight errors and would not win another game as Andreescu notched up a 6-2, 4-6, 6-3 win. And teared up.
“That moment over there was just me realizing how all of it was worth it. I never gave up,” said the youngster who turned to meditation during her layoff. It sure seemed worthwhile.
Pre-tournament, she had spoken about how she was going to be sore after her opener having no match practice at all. How she recovers will be crucial because next up is Hsieh Su-wei, who can be a tricky customer with her style of play.
Shapovalov and luck of the draw down Sinner in match of the day
Just about 24 hours after winning his second ATP title, teen star Jannik Sinner was out playing against 11th seed Denis Shapovalov in a match that had no business being a first-rounder. But despite a title the day before and a 10-match winning streak, the fate seemed against the young Italian.
First, a day’s delay due to Covid-scare meant he had to play back-to-back days. Second, he just about missed being seeded player as he climbed to a career-best 32 this week courtesy Sunday’s title. Third, he was up against a high seed just a few years older and full of gas to fight a five-set battle, in a match commentators called the “future of men’s tennis” by the end.
Not too long ago, the Canadian was the teen sensation people watched out for in draws. Now, Sinner – who became the youngest ATP champion in 12 years last year and only the second teen since Djokovic to double it – is seen as the next big thing.
But the 21-year-old Shapovalov was the veteran in this first meeting and it showed in the way he rallied from dropping the first set and being pushed to a decider after winning the next two. At the US Open, he was the one who lost steam in the fifth set to Pablo Carreno Busta in a quarter-final and he was able to draw from that experience against the 19-year-old. The left-hander kept up the attack – right from the nine-minute opening game – even as his winners and unforced errors count mounted (he had 62 winners to his opponent’s 26 and 71 unforced errors to 44), and eventually Sinner’s tired legs gave out.
But the teen fought till the end, even after being broken in the first game of the fifth and getting a foot in when Shapovalov served a double fault after squandering the first match point. Sinner gave it his all and made those watching wish the draw had been kinder.
The shot-making clinic that went up to 1 AM in Melbourne and was another reminder of why the best-of-five format is so unique. And it was summed up perfectly by one of the protagonists.
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