Day 4 at Melbourne Park was not a good one for Australian hopes as Arina Rodionova joined compatriots Ajla Tomljanovic and Priscilla Hon on the sidelines after losing 6-3 7-5 to 9th-seeded Kiki Bertens.
I got married in the summer to my husband Remko, who is part of my team. He is a physio and a fitness trainer, but a coach as well, and my coach Elise is also a fitness trainer and physio. So they can do both - and if I'm not happy with one, then I can switch to the other! Kiki Bertens
The Dutchwoman matched her career-best Australian Open result on Thursday, when she ousted the Aussie wildcard to move into the 3rd round of the year’s first Grand Slam event.
Bertens, a consistent member of the Top 10 since her debut here in October 2018, has only reached the 3rd round in Melbourne once before, when she won 2 matches before losing to eventual champion Caroline Wozniacki in 2018.
The newly-married World No 10 is now one step closer to a new best finish after her hard-fought 86-minute victory over the World No 163 in just under an hour a half.
The players had a nearly equivalent number of unforced errors, but Bertens out-struck the Aussie 25 to 8 in winners, while Rodionova, in only her second match with an opponent ranked inside the Top 10, broke Bertens 3 times on the day, but the Dutchwoman converted 6 of her 11 break points to glide to victory.
Writing in a column for the BBC, Bertens reflected on travelling with her new husband, Remko De Rijke, who is also part of her team: “I got married in the summer to my husband Remko, who is part of my team.
“He is a physio and a fitness trainer, but a coach as well, and my coach Elise is also a fitness trainer and physio. So they can do both – and if I’m not happy with one, then I can switch to the other!
“It is great he is part of our team because otherwise we’d have no time to see each other.
“Remko has his own tennis academy in Belgium so he travels with us for half of the year. I think it is good that he travels with us only half of the time, and not full time, because I think that would make it a little bit tougher.”
Bertens will now face Zarina Diyas of Kazakhstan, who won her 2nd consecutive tense 3-setter earlier when she overcame Anna Blinkova of Russia, 4-6 6-3 6-4.
Diyas upset No 21 seed Amanda Anisimova in the opening round and is proving to be a fighter.
British hopes ended with the departure of both Heather Watson and Harriet Dart to Elise Mertens and Simona Halep respectively.
Watson suffered a 2nd-round humbling at the hands of Mertens, the No 16 seed from Belgium, who sought revenge for the quarter-finals loss in Hobart last week, but the Brit could not find anything close to that form against an opponent that won the final 8 games and the match, 6-3 6-0, in just 56 minutes.
“I felt my level wasn’t there today,” Watson lamented. “My movement. I was a millimetre or a second too slow to everything. I was letting her dictate.
“As the match went on, she played better and was more aggressive. I am just not happy with my performance at all.”
Dart found herself headlining the night session on Rod Laver Arena and put in a plucky performance, going down to the World No 3, 6-2 6-4, after an hour 17 minutes.
Making her second appearance there in as many years, having failed to win a game against Maria Sharapova in the first round 12 months ago, Dart avoided that fate comfortably this time and had Halep worried when she fought back from 5-1 down to 5-4 in the second set, saving a match point.
That proved to be as good as it got, but Dart can take great confidence from her performance in the straight-sets defeat.
Thanks to her 3 victories in qualifying and one in the main draw, Dart’s ranking is projected to rise from 173 to 141, and her next outing could well be in Britain’s Fed Cup play-off against Slovakia in two weeks’ time.
Speaking on court, Wimbledon champion Halep said: “It was a little bit dangerous. I lost the focus a little bit but she started to play very well. I’m happy I went through it.”
One seed fell on Thursday, Karolina Muchova, at the hands of talented young American Catherine ‘Cici’ Bellis, 6-4 6-4.
The win meant so much more than a place in the 3rd round because Bellis, who was ranked as high as 35 in 2017, has come back from a devastating right forearm injury that derailed her in 2018 and she not only subsequently endured four surgeries in June, September, November and March of 2019 on her arm and elbow, but fierce physical and mental pain.
One of the many procedures she went through required one of the bones in her arm to be shortened, with a plate put in its place.
As her ranking plummeted to No 600, Bellis stepped away, took online college courses, and tried to recover.
Her coach Tom Gurreridge noted: “Cici has had a really tough time these past 2 years; it’s been a lot of ups and downs, she had to do a lot of rehab…just making sure her body was ready to train again.”
As late as October she was told that she would never play again, but such is her resolve that she slowly recovered, got herself into good shape and won her first qualifying match in Houston in November.
As a result, she was given a wildcard into the Australian Open and beat the considerably able German, Tatjana Maria, and on this dusty, gusty day, she downed the No 20 seed to face another stern test in the No 16 seed, Belgian Elise Mertens.
The 20-year-old will relish such a stern test because despite her relatively slight build, she has a tough and steely determination.
Donna Vekic, the No 19 seed, made her way by easing her way past the tricky Frenchwoman Alizé Cornet, 6-4 6-2.
In her 8th consecutive appearance at the Australian Open, the Croat moved into the third round for the very first time in her career, finally breaking that duck with her 91-minute victory over Cornet.
“I think today I really stepped up,” Vekic said after her win.
“There’s not really a reason I didn’t do so well here in the past,” added the Croatian No 2.
“I’ve been enjoying my time here this year, I got to play on two big courts, so I really enjoyed that.”
Cornet had beaten Vekic in straight sets in their only prior meeting, a second-round clash at Monterrey in 2017, but Vekic continued the momentum of her 1st-round win over former champion Maria Sharapova, and dispatched World No 61 Cornet with 38 winners to 24 unforced errors.
Vekic broke Cornet 5 times and won nearly 80 percent of points off of her first serve.
“I knew it was not going to be any easier,” Vekic stated. “Alizé is such a tricky opponent, she gets so many balls back, so I knew I could not relax, not even one bit. I had to stay focused.”
Vekic next faces rising Polish teenager Iga Swiatek, winner over former top tenner Carla Suárez Navarro of Spain, 6-3 7-5.
Suárez Navarro, 31, announced her intention to retire at the end of the 2020 season and took out 11th seed Aryna Sabalenka in the first round, but could not get past her Polish opponent, 13 years her junior.
Meanwhile, Italy’s Giorgi has sent Russia’s Svetlana Kuznetsova home and is now set to play Germany’s Angelique Kerber, who is seeded 17 at the tournament.
In the match, which lasted a little over an hour, the 28-year-old Italian player, ranked 102, breezed past her 34-year-old Russian opponent, the World No 53, with a straight sets win of 6-3 6-1.
Kuznetsova has won 18 WTA Tour events and is a two-time Grand Slam champion, having won the title at the US Open in 2004 and then the French Open in 2009.
Yulia Putintseva was the eventual victor in an enthralling epic encounter with last year’s semi-finalist Danielle Collins, coming through 6-4 2-6 7-5 for the right to play Halep next up.
Other players who secured their place in the 3rd round include Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova and Anett Kontaveit.