Jessica Pegula, the World No 3, was the first seed to advance on the opening day’s play at the Australian Open on Monday, cruising past Jaqueline Cristian to meet Aliaskandra Sasnovich, while Maria Sakkari and Danielle Collins also advanced.
I haven't changed about the war and everything that's going on, on tour. Because people who just say they don't want war, it makes us [Ukraine] sound like we want war. Obviously we don't want the war, too. Whoever speaks out clearly, I believe, has every right to be on tour but whoever doesn't ... I don't think it's just humane. Marta Kostyuk
After guiding the United States to United Cup success in Sydney, which included a win over World No 1 Iga Swiatek, Pegula carried her hard-court form to Melbourne Park where she needed less than an hour to dismiss the Romania, 6-0 6-1.
Claiming the very first victory of the tournament, Pegula is the daughter of Buffalo Bills’ billionaire owner Terry Pegula, and a Bills’ fan was spotted waving a team flag in the stands as she took to Margaret Court Arena.
Pegula responded by signing off on her victory by writing on the camera ‘Go Bills’, adding ‘#3’ and a love heart in a touching tribute to Bills player Damar Hamlin, who suffered a terrifying heart attack on-field in recent weeks.
As flawless and collected as she was on court, though, the American admitted that it was a different story when it came to containing those pre-Slam nerves.
“Everything starts to bother me a little bit more,” Pegula said. “The strings start to bother me. Like certain courts I start getting very critical of, all these different things going on.
“Honestly, I’m always like that, I think. I have just gotten good at, ‘OK, match day starts, none of that really matters’. That’s what I’ve gotten better at.
“I would say, like, the week leading up, I definitely get very hard on myself during practice.”
Her next opponent, Sasnovich, was a 7-5 6-2 winner over 15-year old Brenda Fruhvirtova, the Czech qualifier.
Meanwhile, Maria Sakkari, the 6th seed from Greece, basked in the atmosphere of Rod Laver Arena at an event she has dubbed her ‘home Grand Slam’, and her comfort on the court was clear as she charged to a 6-1 6-4 victory over China’s Yuan Yue, booking a meeting with 18-year-old qualifier Diana Shnaider from Russia.
“I feel like I say the same thing every year I come back here,” Sakkari said. “It’s my home tournament because of the large Greek community.
“People here, [in] Australia, no matter what nationality, they are very friendly, very nice to everyone. I could live in this city. There is nothing I dislike about this country.
“The Greeks always help. They’re always there to support us. It’s like home.”
A little bit of early trouble proved no problem for Sakkari, who hit 38 winners to largely roll at Melbourne Park to kick off her 8th Australian Open campaign in 94 minutes, coming from 1-3 down in the second set.
“I feel like this court is slow but I like it,” she said. “It’s the perfect conditions for my game.
“The hotter it gets the better it is for me. I just love it here. There’s nothing you can’t love about this tournament.”
“I mean it’s the first time I’ve seen the girl playing. She’s young, she’s very good. I was nervous,”
28th seed Amanda Anisimova of the USA was left in tears as she became the first seeded player to be knocked out of the Australian Open, falling 6-3 6-4 to Marta Kostyuk of Ukraine.
The 21-year-old reached the 2019 French Open semi-final, but had never gone beyond the quarter-finals in Australia, and she struggled against a fellow rising star in Kostyuk, the 20-year-old ranked 61 in the world.
As Russian missiles continue to pound her country, Kostyuk, Ukraine’s No 2, says she will not shake hands with tour rivals from Russia or Belarus who she feels have not done enough to speak out against the invasion.
The 20-year-old Kyiv native generated headlines last year when she refused the customary handshake at the net with former World No 1 Victoria Azarenka after the Belarusian beat her at the US Open.
After winning her first match on Monday, Kostyuk said: “I haven’t changed about the war and everything that’s going on, on tour.
“Because people who just say they don’t want war, it makes us [Ukraine] sound like we want war. Obviously we don’t want the war, too.
“Whoever speaks out clearly, I believe, has every right to be on tour but whoever doesn’t … I don’t think it’s just humane.
“I don’t really talk to anyone,” she added of Russian and Belarusian players. “I barely say ‘hi’ to them.”
Kostyuk will face Australian wild-card Olivia Gadecki in the 2nd-round after the 20-year-old, who is being mentored by Ash Barty, earned a win in her Grand Slam debut, defeating Polina Kudermetova from Russia, 7-5 6-1.
Anisimova’s early departure was followed soon afterwards by Czech 25th seed Marie Bouzkova, who was ousted in straight sets by Canadian Bianca Andreescu, 6-2 6-4.
It was a match that proved a bit controversial as Bouzkova called on the umpire to step in after she took exception to the level of noise the Canadian was making.
“I’m hitting the ball, and she’s screaming,” the Czech complained.
Andreescu, the 2019 US Open winner, quickly apologised before going on to claim the win after an hour and 41 minutes out on Court 3.
“I think I played very solid today,” Andreescu said. “Marie did pose a challenge, but I’m just very grateful with how I dealt with that challenge.
“I was very focused from A to Z, and that’s how I want to play every match basically, so hopefully I can keep the momentum.
“I was very motivated considering my last match. I definitely didn’t want to give her any room to kind of come back.”
Andreescu is hoping for a possible ‘inspiring’ encounter with Swiatek in the 3rd-round.
The 22-year-old Canadian has been ranked as high as World No 4 but has dropped to 43rd in the world, having missed the entire Australian summer swing last year.
Next up for Andreescu, though, is Spanish qualifier Cristina Bucsa, who defeated Eva Lys from Germany, 2-6 6-0 6-2.
“At the end of the day I want to win every match,” Andreescu said. “I know that’s not a reality.
“There will definitely be lots of losses. But yeah, just having a match like this, I keep saying it, under my belt, especially in a Grand Slam, hopefully will just keep my momentum going.”
In a battle of former AO champions, Victoria Azarenka overcame Sofia Kenin, 6-4 7-6(3), on Monday afternoon to book a berth in the 2nd-round after a 2 hour and 4 minutes battle on Margaret Court Arena.
The 24th seed, who has won more matches at Melbourne Park than anyone else in the AO 2023 women’s singles draw, quickly found herself on the back foot, and the 33-year-old fended off 4 break points in her opening service game before succumbing to a 5th, falling to an early 0-3 deficit.
A slew of heavy, well-placed groundstrokes from Azarenka produced a string of unforced errors from the 24-year-old Kenin, enabling the 33-year old from Belarus to break the American twice as she raced to a 5-3 lead.
Kenin, playing with strapping down her left adductor, saved 3 set points before Azarenka served out the first set.
The unseeded American went for broke in the second, often dictating points with sizzling down-the-line winners off both wings, and used drop-shots to end rallies with mixed success.
Both retained their focus despite a brief rain delay, and Azarenka survived a shaky service game at 5-6, saving break point to force a second-set tiebreak.
The 24th seed, competing in her 15th Australian Open, closed out the match after Kenin slammed a backhand return into the net.
“She’s an amazing champion,” she said. “I’m glad I was able to find a way.
“It was a nerve-racking match for me. I felt like my game wasn’t at the best today, but I was able to find a way to win. I feel that, mentally, I stayed really strong and I kept looking for solutions.”
Kenin struck 30 winners to Azarenka’s 25, which included 7 aces to her opponent’s zero, but a mighty 38 unforced errors contributed to her downfall, compared to Azarenka’s 27.
The Belarusian was also more successful at the net, winning 11 of her 13 approaches, 85%, and, critically, taking 59 per cent of her second-serve points compared to Kenin’s 21%.
“I feel like my serve has been working quite well, with intention, with precision, the way I’ve been able to take it to my advantage,” said Azarenka, who also won 75 per cent of her first serve points.
She now faces Argentina’s Nadia Podoroska, who defeated lucky loser Leolia Jeanjean of France, 6-0 6-3.
Elsewhere, the runner-up to Ash Barty last year, 13th-seeded Danielle Collins scraped past Russian Anna Kalinskaya, 7-5 5-7 6-4, surviving an early scare.
The American needed over 3 hours to hold off Kalinskaya, and despite battling an issue in her left knee, Collins struck 55 winners to the Russian’s 30.
She will take on the Czech, Karolina Muchova, who was a 6-4 6-2 winner over Ukrainian qualifier Lesla Tsurenko.