Melbourne | AO starts well for Sakkari, Krejcikova and others

Maria Sakkari got the monkey off her back with a convincing 1st-round win over Nao Hibino on the opening day of the Australian Open, while Barbora Krejcikova came from a set down to get past wild-card Mai Hontama, and 16-year old qualifier Brenda Fruhvirtova won her first main draw match at Melbourne Park against Ana Bogdan.

Physically I feel well, I think I just need to play more matches. I feel very hungry, I really want to be [here], I really want to fight, I really want to get the wins, and I really want to get back on track and perform well, and get some good matches. Barbora Krejcikova

In a remarkable turn-around, Sakkari, the 8th seed from Greece, secured a 6-4 6-1 win against Japan’s Hibino, nixing the jinx that has dogged her last 3 Grand Slam opening-round losses.

The Greek has admitted to having struggled mentally to such a degree that she almost quit the WTA Tour, and looked joyous in setting up a 2nd-round meeting with Russian Elena Avanesyan, who prevailed over Nai Zhuoxuan from China, 4-6 7-5 6-2.

“I lost three first rounds [in] my last three Grand Slams, so for me, it was a very difficult match today emotionally,” she said. “I’m very happy I was able to do the job right.”

Sakkari won 100% of first-serve points during the second set, as she began swinging with the freedom of a top seed who has conviction in her own game.

“I was relieved in a way that I managed to win that first set by not playing my great tennis, but sometimes you have to win ugly – definitely that second set was not ugly,” said the 28-year-old, who struck just 6 of her 26 unforced errors during the second set.

Sakkari spent much of November and December in Greece running on the track, lifting weights and spending more hours on court than usual.

“It’s been, I think, the best pre-season I’ve ever had in my career,” Sakkari continued. “I feel young, and very powerful, very energetic.”

During the break, the World No 8 changed rackets and finessed her forehand.

“Now I’m feeling that it’s my best shot, very powerful, and, for sure, the racket has helped.”

Sakkari won all 3 singles matches for Team Greece at the recent United Cup, including notable victories against Leylah Fernandez and former World No 1 and AO 2016 champion, Angelique Kerber, to boost her confidence ahead of the AO.

The Greek has featured in the first two seasons of Netflix’s ‘Break Point’, first introduced in Season 1 as the earnest striver chasing her first big title, a quest that continues in Season 2, as the spotlight turns to her and Jessica Pegula in Episode 5.

“I think that the combination of myself and Jess was very accurate because we’re more or less the same age, similar career paths because we came in quite late, we weren’t amazing juniors,” Sakkari said. “It was spot on in a lot of things.”

On Sunday, Sakkari, who needed just 71 minutes to notch up her win over Hibino to lead 2-0 against the Japanese, is bidding to better her 2023 trip to Melbourne, which ended in a surprising 3rd-round exit to China’s Zhu Lin.

At the end of last season, Sakkari made a strong run to the semi-finals at the WTA Finals in Fort Worth, and finishing the year in the Top 10, giving her reason for optimism in 2024.


Barbora Krejcikova had to come from a set down to get past Mai Hontama on Day 1 of the Australian Open at Melbourne Park

© Cameron Spencer/Getty Images

Seeded players Krejcikova and Fernandez overcame opponents ranked outside the Top 100 in their opening-round matches on Sunday.

Krejcikova, the 9th seed from the Czech Republic, battled to a 2-6 6-4 6-3 win over Hontama, a Japanese wild-card, on Margaret Court Arena.

“It was a really difficult match,” Krejcikova said. “She was playing really well, and it was tough, but I always believed that I could get back into it.

“I’m really happy I won. I think first rounds are difficult in general.”

The 2021 Roland Garros champion, who has won 2 women’s doubles titles and 3 mixed doubles titles at Melbourne Park, needed exactly two-and-a-half hours to subdue Hontama on Sunday, using all of her experience to get past the 24-year-old, who was playing in only her second career Grand Slam main draw.

Unfazed, Hontama reeled off 5 games in a row to claim the one-set lead, before Krejcikova weathered a topsy-turvy second, in which 7 of the 10 games went against serve, to level the match.

Although the Czech then dropped her serve in the opening game of the decider, she charged back to claim the match, winning 53% of Hontama’s first-service points in the 3rd set on her way to the come-back win.

The former World No 2 is now a perfect 5-0 in AO 1st-round matches in her career.

“I’m really happy with the way how I was able to turn around the second set, with the way how I switched my game,” Krejcikova said in her press conference. “I think the second set was, maybe, the key, and then, I feel, in the third, definitely the break at 4-3 was the key to get the win.”

Krejcikova added that she had a good off-season, during which the focus was fitness, which meant ‘a little bit less tennis’.

“Physically I feel well, I think I just need to play more matches,” the Czech said. “I feel very hungry, I really want to be [here], I really want to fight, I really want to get the wins, and I really want to get back on track and perform well, and get some good matches.”

In the 2nd-round, Krejcikova will face Tamara Korpatsch for the first time, after the German defeated Britain’s Jodie Burrage in three sets, 6-2 3-6 6-0.


16-year old qualifier Brenda Fruhvirtova won her first Grand Slam main draw match against Ana Bogdan on Sunday

Martin Keep/AFP via Getty Images

16-year Brenda Fruhvirtova from the Czech Republic, who is the younger sister of Linda Fruhvirtova, came through qualifying to get into the main draw, and has beaten all of her opponents without any major difficulties so far.

She is one of 3 players aged 16 in the women’s draw, all who are attempting to write their own history, and Fruhvirtova led the charge when she took out Romanian Ana Bogdan, 2-6 6-4 6-3, to start her 2024 Australian Open main draw campaign.

It was a nervous start to the match for the teenager, who just couldn’t trouble her opponent on return, and, when serving herself, the Czech also experienced problems, resulting in a quick first-set win for Bogdan.

As the match went on, though, the youngster started to show why she is one of the most talented players of her generation, breaking her opponent at the start of the second.

She immediately lost the lead and, at 4-4, the Romanian got very close to winning as she held a break point to go into a 5-4 lead, and serve for the match.

Thanks to an incredible series of points, Fruhvirtova won 7 of the following 8 rallies to win the set and level the match.

The decider was dominated by the Czech, and she jumped out to a quick 5-1 lead, but then had trouble closing out the match, and needed 5 match points over 3 games to do so.

Fruhvirtova recorded her first-ever Grand Slam main draw win, becoming the youngest woman to win a singles main draw match in Melbourne since Coco Gauff in 2020.

 


Leylah Fernandez saw off 17-year old Sara Bejlek, a fellow left-hander, in straight sets to open her AO campaign on Sunday

© Kelly Defina/Getty Images

Earlier in the day, Fernandez, Canada’s No 32 seed and the 2021 US Open finalist, defeated Czech qualifier Sara Bejlek, 7-6(5) 6-2, in a clash between two left-handers on John Cain Arena.

“I haven’t played many lefties, so it was a tough one,” she said. “I’m super happy that I was able to play some good points in important moments.”

Fernandez made a hot start by breaking her opponent to love in the first game, but Bejlek fought her way back into the contest, forcing the Canadian to dig deep.

The two speedy youngsters battled for an hour and 33 minutes before 21-year old Fernandez got the better of 17-year old Bejlek.

Fernandez was forced to the bitter-end of the first set before squeaking out the tiebreak, then broke Bejlek 3 times in the second.

The Canadian, who won her 3rd career singles title at the end of last season in Hong Kong, fired 27 winners to Bejlek’s 17.

“It was a good match,” Fernandez told the media. “It wasn’t a perfect match, but I’m just glad that I was able to fight through some of the tough moments that I encountered in the first set and just kept fighting.

“When I had my chance to close it out in the breaker, I was just happy that I was able to execute it.”

Fernandez clinched 14 of 17 net points, and credited herself for continuing to approach the net, regardless of the outcome.

“It’s always fun being at the net and being able to finish a good point that way,” she said.

Fernandez will next face Alycia Parks in their first meeting, the American having beaten qualifier Daria Snigur, a 21-year old Ukrainian, 2-6 6-2 6-4.


Veteran Alize Cornet bowed out to qualifier Maria Timofeeva in her 68th consecutive Grand Slam, which is a women's record

© Darrian Traynor/Getty Images

Elsewhere, another Ukrainian Lesia Tsurenko, the 28th seed, did make it into round 2 with a 3-6 7-5 6-3 win over Italy’s Lucia Bronzetti after 2 hours and 38 minutes, while Russian qualifier Maria Timofeeva ousted veteran Frenchwoman Alizé Cornet, 6-2 6-4.

“It was the hardest two-set match I think I’ve ever played in my life” said 20-year old Timofeeva. “I was watching her when I was very little, so [it] was an honour to play against her today.”

Cornet was appearing in her 68th consecutive Grand Slam event, which is a women’s record.


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