Melbourne | Heat delays as Sabalenka leads seeds into AO round 2

On a broiling hot day at Melbourne Park, play on the outside courts of the Australian Open was suspended for about 3 hours due to the extreme heat, causing a delay, while matches on the show-courts with roofs closed continued.

If you want to go all the way in a Slam, you have to beat some tough players. It’s a good test. A good challenge. Caroline Garcia

When temperatures rose to 37C, matches on the outside courts were stopped just before 2.15pm local time (3.15 am GMT), and did not resume until around 6pm (7am GMT), but were then further delayed by late rain.

Play stopped because the AO Heat Stress scale, which takes into account the strength of the sun, air temperature in the shade, relative humidity, and wind speed, reached its highest level of 5.

The extreme heat policy had earlier come into effect when the scale hit 4, allowing singles players to take a 10-minute break during the match and have a shower or use cooling rooms.

The conditions did not seem to affect 5th-seed Aryna Sabalenka from Belarus, who played the opening match on Rod Laver Arena at 11am, and breezed past Czech Tereza Martincova, 6-1 6-4,

“Took me however many years to get this feeling,” the 24-year-old said about finding her groove. “I think I need to work on my mindset, I have to be calm, and I have to just fight for every point and don’t get upset with every mistake I’m making.”

Sabalenka, who suffered sever serving yips last year, struck a 192km/h serve, which is the tournament’s 3rd-fastest behind Elena Rybakina and Coco Gauff, during Tuesday’s outing.

“I like to take it step by step,” she said. “I know how to switch off from tennis. I’m really working hard physically, mentally. I’m ready to go deep.”

Sabalenka will meet Shelby Rogers in the 2nd-round after the American advanced with a 6-4 6-3 win over Arianne Hartono from France.

The Belarusian is unbeaten so far this year, having won the Adelaide International 1 title, and on this occasion blasted 29 winners to Martincova’s 7 as she won her 5th consecutive match.

“It wasn’t that easy, I’m super-happy to start with the win,” she concluded.

Sabalenka, who has yet to win a Grand Slam singles title, has not made it past the 4th-round at Melbourne Park in her 5 previous visits.

Elise Mertens came back from the brink to beat both Garbiñe Muguruza in 3 sets and the Australian heat

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Also an early starter out on Margaret Court Stadium, Spain’s Garbiñe Muguruza, the runner-up in Melbourne in 2020, lost her 5th consecutive match to start the year when she was beaten 3-6 6-7(3) 6-1 by Belgian Elise Mertens, the 26th seed.

Muguruza, a two-time Grand Slam champion, served for the match at 6-5 in the second set, but was thwarted and then wilted in the heat of stiff competition.

“I’m pretty glad I pulled through the second [set], it kind of made the match,” said Mertens, who crucially broke the Spaniard and maintained her unbeaten streak in the round of 128 at Melbourne Park.

The 27-year-old, who outlasted Muguruza over 2 hours and 31 minutes, said she is no longer nursing the shoulder injury that affected her at the United Cup in Perth, and in Hobart.

“It was 70 per cent, 75 per cent … now it’s 95-ish,” she said, remarking that her confidence was boosted by her victory over Muguruza, as well as her ability to beat the heat.

Mertens, ranked No 32 in the world, will face the winner of the match between American Lauren Davis and Montenegrin Danka Kovinic next.

Muguruza is now winless since last September, while Mertens improves to a 17-5 lifetime record in Melbourne, having reached the semi-finals here on her main draw debut, and has made the second week in 4 of her 5 main draw appearances.

Working mother Taylor Townsend scored an easy win over Diane Parry to open her account in Melbourne Park

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American Taylor Townsend won her first Grand Slam match since becoming a mother, beating Diane Parry, a wild-card entry from France, 6-1 6-1, and will next meet Ekaterina Alexandrova after the 19th seed from Russia dispatched Belgium’s Ysaline Bonaventure, 6-2 6-1.

26-year old Townsend left her two-year-old son, Adyn, in December, vowing to make the wrench worthwhile.

“When I leave, it’s incredibly important for me to make the times that I leave count,” Townsend told reporters in Melbourne. “I talk to [Adyn], and before my matches I look at pictures and videos and just remind myself of why I’m doing this and why I’m away, so it means something.

“It really is special to make these moments count and to be able to show the ups and downs.

“Like, the way that my singles started in the first match of the season [she lost 6-0, 6-0 in Adelaide qualifying] compared to this one, like, it just is in a short amount of time for me.

“It just shows [people] to continue to work and those results don’t define you. You just have to keep your head down and continue to push on.”

Townsend picked up back-to-back doubles titles in Adelaide to start the year, and making the AO 2nd-round puts valuable prize-money into her account.

She is candid about the financial realities, and needs to get back on tour to win matches and earn money, just like any other working mother.

“I want to enjoy being a mother,” she said. “I want to understand my son. I don’t want to feel the pressure of I have to play.

“You have to take into consideration that the financial situation of everyone is different. My financial situation versus Kim’s [Clijsters] financial situation versus Serena’s versus Vika’s, we’re in different circles. By a certain time, I need to start playing so I can start making some money again. I need to start replenishing the pot.”

“You can’t be naive to those things. My bank account and Serena’s bank account, very different.”

“Even in that aspect of my comeback and going back on the road, I have a nanny. I have someone to be able to watch him, but I don’t have the flexibility to be able to take someone else on the road all the time so that A.J. can travel with me.

“So it’s just those ups and downs and sacrifices that I have to make for my personal situation, and hopefully as this year progresses, things can change.”

World No 4 Caroline Garcia swept past qualifier Katherine Sebov to set up a 2nd-round meeting with Leylah Fernandez

© Clive Brunskill/Getty Images

Meanwhile, out on Court 3, Leylah Fernandez, the former U.S. Open runner-up from Canada, beat Frenchwoman and 2022 quarter-finalist Alizé Cornet, 7-5 6-2.

“It wasn’t easy to play against a friend,” said the Canadian of her French opponent. “I think I did well to manage my emotions, and then especially manage the heat.”

Fernandez is known for her composure well beyond her 20 years, and she credits her parents influence from a young age for this.

“The mental to the physical is three to one,” she opined. “It’s hard. You’re all alone out there on court. Most of the time you don’t have a coach with you or the coach can’t talk to you during the points … you have to figure some things out, you have to be your own cheerleader, your own biggest critic, your own biggest supporter.”

Fernandez meets another Frenchwoman next, Caroline Garcia, the 4th seed who took an hour and 5 minutes to dispatch another Canadian, qualifier Katherine Sebov, 6-3 6-0.

“It’s never easy to start the tournament,” she said, confessing that she was a little tight during the first couple of games. “There were nerves… there will always be some, that mean[s] I care, also, about what I’m doing.”

Garcia lost in the 1st-round at Melbourne Park a year ago to drop outside the top 70, but stormed back into form later in 2022, winning titles on all 3 surfaces, including the season-ending WTA Tour Finals in Fort Worth, Texas to soar up the rankings, cementing her status as a real contender for the first Grand Slam of the year.

“We always say things can change very quickly,” Garcia said after setting up a 2nd-round encounter with Fernandez. “A couple of years were very tough and I had to deal with a lot of injuries.

“It’s tough. But I got a good team behind me who really helped me to get healthy again and to enjoy what I was doing on court. The support was really important.

“I enjoyed playing tennis again. I was, like, I want to go forward, I want to make winners.”

Garcia started her season by winning all 3 of her matches for France at the United Cup, and then reached the quarter-finals in Adelaide.

Reflecting on playing Fernandez, Garcia said they had never played each other before, but she was expecting the 20-year-old, who is ranked 40th, to be a dangerous opponent.

“If you want to go all the way in a Slam, you have to beat some tough players,” said Garcia, who made her Melbourne Park debut a decade ago with her best run, to the last 16, in 2018. “It’s a good test. A good challenge.”

Karolina Pliskova was a comfortable winner over Wang Xiyu on Tuesday

© Mark Kolbe/Getty Images

Elsewhere, 30th seed Karolina Pliskova, an AO2019 semi-finalist, swept past China’s Wang Xiyu, 6-1 6-3, playing under the roof inside Margaret Court Arena.

The former World No 1 was sidelined with a broken arm when AO22 began.

After hitting 19 winners and breaking Wang’s serve 4 times in 64 minutes, Pliskova said the opportunity to play indoors suited her.

“I think the conditions were a little bit better with the roof,” she said on-court. “It’s still quite humid, but it was pretty hot today, so I was happy that the roof was closed.”

“I have some great memories on this court overall in the last 15 years, since I won the juniors here. … I missed it last year, so I’m happy to be back this year.”

Local wild-card Kimberly Birrell recorded a hard-fought 3-6 7-6(4) 6-1 victory against No 31 seed Kaia Kanepi from Estonia in an opening-round singles showdown at Kia Arena today.

“I’m doing what I absolutely love and not many people get to wake up and live their dream,” an emotional Birrell declared after the match.

It is Birrell’s first Grand Slam main-draw win in 4 years and her 4th career top-50 victory.

“She’s a quality player and I knew how deep she’s gone in Slams,” Birrell said after defeating Kanepi, a 7-time Grand Slam quarterfinalist. “I’m so happy that I won today, and I get to play again.”

The promising Aussie made the 3rd-round at AO 2019 and achieved a career-high ranking of 154 a few months later, before injury threatened her career.

She has since bravely bounced back from two elbow surgeries.

“No matter how resilient you are, rehab is really tough when you’ve been doing it for a year and a half,” Birrell said. “There were times when I wanted to give up, but I’m really glad that I didn’t.”

A resurgent Birrell soared back into the world’s top 200 last season after reaching 3 ITF finals.

She was preparing to play qualifying when she learned she had received a main-draw wild-card following Venus Williams’ injury withdrawal.

“I was not expecting it at all. I cried like a baby, and it was such a nice moment,” Birrell said.

Determined to make the most of the opportunity, Birrell’s incredible grit was on show against the 37-year-old Kanepi, ranked 29 and an AO 2022 quarter-finalist.

Kanepi served for the match leading 6-3 5-4, but Birrell managed to fight her way back into the contest.

After securing a high-pressure second-set tiebreak, Birrell won 16 of the first 19 points in the deciding set to race to a 4-0 lead.

“I felt a lot of energy from the crowd when I won the second set, and I really had to remind myself that there’s a long way to go. I tried to centre myself and then just take it one point at a time,” Birrell said.

From there, she closed out one of the biggest wins of her career after 2 hours and 32 minutes on court.

Birrell now faces Czech teen sensation Linda Fruhvirtova, who recorded a 6-0 6-4 win against Australia’s Jaimee Fourlis on Tuesday.

The 17-year-old Fruhvirtova is currently ranked No.82 and is the youngest player inside the world’s top 100.

Italian Camila Giorgi, who posted an easy 6-0 6-1 victory over Russia’s Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova has denied allegations that she obtained a false COVID-19 vaccine certificate to allow her to travel last year.

A doctor is under investigation in Italy for supplying false certificates and fake vaccines and Giorgi’s name was revealed in a long list of people implicated by an Italian newspaper.

“I just did all my vaccination in different places, so the trouble is hers, not me,” she said. “So with that, I’m very calm. Of course, if not, I couldn’t come here and play this tennis, I think.”



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