Melbourne | Osaka, Serena and Barty safely through
© William West / AFP via Getty Images
The Australian Open kicked off in Melbourne on Monday against a backdrop of bushfires and floods, with comfortable wins by defending champion Naomi Osaka and history-seeking Serena Williams while Ash Barty suffered a slight stutter.
I think it's factored a lot into my game [winning Auckland], and now it's just more or less about doing the best that Serena Williams can do. Margaret Court was a wonderful, great champion. And now how great is Serena Williams? That's it... Serena Williams
After a week of controversy over the air quality, organisers were relieved to be free of smoke particulates and even welcomed the rain that curtailed much of play on the first day in the knowledge that 3 stadium courts have retractable roofs.
Osaka opened her campaign with a relatively straightforward win, dispatching Czech Marie Bouzkova, 6-2 6-4, on Rod Laver Arena.
Despite a second-set hiccup, when she dropped serve for 2-4, the Japanese had too much service firepower and weight of ground-shot for the 21-year-old Czech, who was making her main draw debut at Melbourne Park.
“It was really tough for me trying to control my nerves,” Osaka admitted after her 80-minute victory.
“I was really thankful to get through in two [sets]. I’ve never played her before. It’s really tough to play someone you’ve never played in the first round of a Grand Slam.”
Osaka prefaced her thanks to the crowd with a typically self-effacing: “You probably didn’t come for me but…”
She is, in fact, a popular figure in Australia and around the world, and her big game is a sight to behold when she is on song.
On Monday she delivered a stream of 29 winners and while less than a year separated her from Bouzkova, the gulf in big-match experience was soon apparent, with the Czech having just one Grand Slam match win to her credit, compared to Osaka’s two majors and World No 1 ranking by the age of 21.
The rising Czech reached the verge of the top 50 last season, and her three top-10 scalps in 2019 over Sloane Stephens, Simona Halep and Elina Svitolina all came on hard courts.
In blissfully mild conditions, both players held their opening serves without a tremor and it was Osaka who first faced break points in both sets, responding with forceful play each time.
Bouzkova, it seemed, could rally with the World No 3 and stay in the points, but not finish them.
At 3-2 in the second set and deuce, Bouzkova, ranked 59, conjured up an angled forehand return winner, suddenly became animated and, on break point, Osaka steered a forehand long to finally drop serve.
Serving for a 5-2 lead, however, the Czech opened and ended the game with double faults, and received a warning for unsportsmanlike conduct at the changeover.
Crisis averted, Osaka broke for 5-4 with two backhand winners and swept 4 straight games for the win to set up a 2nd round match with China’s Zheng Saisai, who beat Russian qualifier Anna Kalinskaya, 6-3 6-2.
Strangely, Osaka fired back at a social media user who jeered her arrival on court, writing “Boooooooooooo” on the event’s official Twitter page as it announced the match was about to start.
Osaka responded after the match with a tweet of her own, asking, ‘are you big mad or little mad?’, then told reporters she could not understand why someone would attack her for no apparent reason.
“She was hating. What would her children think? You’re just going to come on the Internet and boo me for no reason? I didn’t do anything to you,” Osaka said when asked about the exchange.
“She was very upset. I also wonder, people like this, if they see you in person, I wonder what they would do?”
It seems the Japanese is more than capable both on and off the court.
© William West / AFP via Getty Images
Serena Williams’ quest for a record-equalling 24th Grand Slam singles trophy also got off to a winning start, following a straight-sets victory over teenager Anastasia Potapova.
Williams has never fallen at the opening hurdle in Melbourne in 18 prior appearances and she maintained her perfect record with a 6-0 6-3 triumph over the 18-year-old Russian.
Barring an early second-set blip on serve, her first outing on Australian soil for 2020 was passed with relative ease but the bigger picture was never far from mind as her 23rd Grand Slam title came at Melbourne Park 2 years ago when she was 8 weeks pregnant.
Since her return, the 38-year-old has come close to drawing level with Margaret Court’s mark 4 times but was soundly beaten on each occasion.
She landed her first title in Auckland after the drought just 2 weeks ago.
“I think it’s factored a lot into my game, and now it’s just more or less about doing the best that Serena Williams can do,” Williams said of Court’s record.
“Margaret Court was a wonderful, great champion. And now how great is Serena Williams?
“That’s it. That’s kind of what I have been thinking about the last couple of weeks and months. It definitely helps me relax a lot.”
The 90th-ranked Potapova was the world’s top-ranked junior just 2 years ago but against arguably the world’s greatest player, she looked hapless early on.
Both her serve and forehand failed and it wasn’t until the 8th game that she finally got on the board.
With the pressure valve released, she conjured a break when Williams double-faulted for 2-1, but the momentum shift was fleeting and the American reeled off 5 of the last 6 games to book a showdown with Slovenian Tamara Zidansek on her 9th ace.
After winning that first title since her return, Williams admitted one small ‘hoodoo’ has been lifted.
“I think so, yeah. I think, so to say, monkey off my back, kind of,” Williams said, who is looking to reach a ninth Australian Open final.
“It was very important for me to get a win in the final. It felt like a relief … like I could move forward now.”
© Hannah Peters / Getty Images
Coco Gauff repeated her Wimbledon 2019 first round triumph over Venus Williams with a 7-6(5) 6-3 victory on Monday to start her Australian Open main draw debut in style.
In one of the most spectacular shocks of 2019, Gauff dismissed one of her childhood idols on the lawns of SW19 in straight sets, igniting ‘Cocomania’ across social media.
Fast-forward to Melbourne and the 15-year-old, featuring in her first major on ranking merit, edged a turbulent opening set before racing into the second round to tackle World No 74 Sorana Cirstea next.
“That was really difficult, she played really well,” said Gauff, who couldn’t quite believe it was a Wimbledon rematch Down Under.
“I was really nervous before today’s match. I was a bit shocked, I’m sure everybody was shocked when they saw the draw come out, but I’m glad I was able to get through it. Now I’m feeling great.”
Venus, a 7-time Grand Slam champion, and Gauff received a great reception from the packed Margaret Court Arena crowd, with the fearless youngster rising to the occasion from the outset.
The two-time Australian Open finalist dismissed three Gauff set points from 5-3 down, and then teased the errors from the teenager’s racket to restore scoreboard parity and prompting a tiebreak.
Gauff gained the momentum with brave play and although Venus rallied again from 3-0 down to level at 5-5, she took the set in an enthralling 62 minutes.
The second set was a bit of a romp for the teenager, who soared into the second round.
“I just want to say thank you guys, you guys were chanting my name and I only thought that would happen at US Open,” declared the American prodigy as ‘Coco, Coco’ rang around the MCA.
“To hear that here in Australia means a lot to me.”
Cirstea will present a tough challenge in the second round, having prevailed past 32nd seed Barbora Strycova 6-2 7-6(5) earlier on Monday.
© Mike Owen / Getty Images
In the night session, World No 1 Ashleigh Barty survived a first-set stumble to steam into her campaign with a first-round win over Ukrainian Lesia Tsurenko.
After dropping the first set, Barty responded in ruthless fashion to run away with a 5-7 6-1 6-1 victory at Rod Laver Arena on Monday night.
The 23-year-old, who is bidding for her first title at Melbourne Park, was the only Australian to book a victory in a rain-interrupted day one.
Under lights in front of a near-capacity crowd, Barty cut the unforced errors out of her game that plagued her in the first set to win in a touch over 90 minutes.
“This is probably the moment I’ve been looking forward to the most during the off-season,” Barty said of entering the tournament’s premier court.
“It’s amazing to be back out here. It’s a tight turnaround from [winning in] Adelaide … I sharpened up [in the second set] and did what I needed to do.”
The top seed next faces either Polona Hercog or Rebecca Peterson for a place in the third round.