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Melbourne | Pliskova and Muguruza move on

After more torrential rain, the sun was out again, briefly, in Melbourne on Day 4 when World No 2 Karolina Pliskova and two-time Grand Slam champion Garbiñe Muguruza moved into round 3 of the Australian Open.


I'm not sure if it was really nice tennis today. I think she has a very ugly game for me, so I'm never going to feel amazing playing her. I'm just happy to be through because this was an ugly match for me. Karolina Pliskova

While the outside courts had to be pressure-washed after rain deposited mud overnight, delaying the schedule, play on the show courts was unaffected and Pliskova’s passage was relatively easy after Muguruza opened proceedings on Rod Laver Arena with a nail-biter against a home favourite.

Pliskova took out Laura Siegemund, a former Top 30 player, 6-3 6-3, and reflected on an uncomfortable match afterwards.

“I’m not sure if it was really nice tennis today,” the Czech said during her on-court interview. “I think she has a very ugly game for me, so I’m never going to feel amazing playing her.

“I’m just happy to be through because this was an ugly match for me.

“Last time we played was on clay, and I think she’s more difficult on that surface, so I’m just happy I’m through and hopefully I can feel better in my next round.”

Pliskova, who defeated 23-time Grand Slam champion Serena Williams en route to her first semi-final in Melbourne 12 months ago, overcame a slow start against Siegemund and has yet to drop a set Down Under, advancing after 86 minutes on Rod Laver Arena.

With rain falling in Melbourne, again forcing a roof closure, the two faced off on an indoor court and initially the conditions seemed to favour the German veteran, who bounded ahead by an early break with the help of her signature brand of variety and off-pace shots.

A point from a 1-4 deficit, the No 2 seed, who won her 3rd Brisbane International title 2 weeks ago, quickly adjusted, reeling off 5 games in a row to sweep the opening set.

“I love this country, and it also helps that this comes after all of the hard work during the off-season,” she said.

“The offseason, I think, was good. I did a lot of work, and I was feeling good in Brisbane. I was there couple days more before the tournament, so I think it was good move just to stay there a little bit longer just to get used to the hot conditions.

“Here so far the weather keep changing, but I think I am more used to it.

It was a solid day for Pliskova, who struck an impressive 8 aces and racked up 22 total winners to just 15 unforced errors.

Siegemund kept things close with 20 winners of her own, but was undone by 24 unforced errors, and could only break serve just once in the first set.

Up next for the Ace Queen, who won the junior title in Melbourne back in 2010, is the winner of a second round clash between No 30 seed Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova and American Taylor Townsend.

Muguruza’s passage was way harder as the former World No 1 had to tough out a 3-setter over an in-form Ajla Tomljanovic to reach the last 32 at Melbourne Park on Thursday, channeling her inner steel that helped her summit Mount Kilimanjaro 2 months ago.

In a high-quality affair, Muguruza needed 2 hours 21 minutes to overcome the home favourite, 6-3 3-6 6-3, and set up a meeting with either 5th-seed Elina Svitolina or Lauren Davis.

A quarter-finalist in Melbourne in 2017, Muguruza has reunited with Conchita Martinez as her coach and looks to be recapturing the form that saw her lift the Wimbledon title two-and-a-half years ago.

“It was a tough battle. We both fought until the end. I think Ajla played very well so I had to level up my game and stay in the fight until the last moment,” said Muguruza.

“I’m very excited to work Conchita. I’ve known her since I was 14, we have great complicity and I’m excited to have her on my side.”

There was nothing between the two players, both 26 years old, tall, wiry and fit.

Muguruza beat Serena Williams at the 2016 French Open and Venus Williams at Wimbledon in 2017 when she was No 1 in the world, and now she No  32.

Tomljanovic is No  52 so little separates them in the rankings, but entering the match, the Australian had been to the second round of a major 10 times, and the next round only once.

The gulf between them was on paper but on the court, the difference was paper-thin, and at the end it was little consolation to Tomljanovic.

“Playing [and losing] a tough match against a player like Garbiñe does nothing for me,” she said.

“I go out there expecting to win, because I train for this. Winning would do something.”

Tomljanovic had the better start, moving up 2-0 early on, but 4 straight games from Muguruza saw the Spaniard edge ahead with a break.

The Aussie slowed her down, and forced Muguruza to save 2 break points in game 8, but the Spaniard marched on, securing a 47-minute first set with a slick backhand lob winner.

Tomljanovic got to a 4-2 lead in the second by putting her backhand to good use, setting up points nicely and coming out on top in most of the baseline rallies.

She was soon on level terms with Muguruza, taking a 48-minute second set to force a decider.

The level of hitting continued to elevate, and Muguruza was ruthless on return.

Despite fending off 2 break points in the 4th game, Tomljanovic faltered at the net, sending a volley long to surrender the service break after a lengthy game and fall behind 1-3.

She retaliated immediately, though, getting back on serve in the very next game.

Rain interrupted play with Tomljanovic serving at 3-4, but the delay was brief as the roof at Rod Laver Arena was closed, allowing the match to resume within minutes.

Muguruza got a crucial break in game 8 to find herself serving for the win at 5-3 and although Tomljanovic bravely saved 2 match points, the Spaniard converted her 3rd chance with a service winner.

In total, she won 24 of 28 points up at the net, fired 34 winners, and was successful in 70 per cent of her first-serve points.

Speaking of her off-season adventure that took her to the top of the highest peak in Africa, the 32nd-ranked Muguruza said: “It was a very hard challenge, completely different of what I do.

“You’re climbing that mountain and it’s only you. You don’t get any award, any prize, any photo, any nothing up there.

“It’s really challenging you physically and mentally to be there, and I was just looking for something fun, different experience outside from tennis.

“Tennis, we’re here the whole year, and just to get out a little bit and do something different.

“I had no idea about it, because I have never done anything similar before. I really like the experience to see myself in the middle of nowhere and just having one clear thought just to keep climbing.”

Another Australian, Priscilla Hon, found herself at the wrong end of her encounter with another former World No 1 and multiple major winner, Germany’s Angelique Kerber.

Most rallies were short, but even when they stretched out, Hon played every shot as if it was her last, swinging at a punching bag between them, not the net, In one 25-shot rally.

Kerber’s sophistication and resolve made headway and there was then only one likely outcome as Hon made 22 winners to the German’s 14, but 33 errors to her opponent’s 11.

In just more than an hour, it was Kerber into the 3rd round, 6-2 6-2.

“She hits the ball really fast and hard,” said Kerber, “and I was just trying to play my game, get a lot of balls back.”.

The dirty rain, the result of dust storms becoming caught up in a cold front, coated cars with orange mud, forced public pools to close and turned Melbourne’s Yarra River brown.

It also plastered Melbourne Park, further disrupting a tournament that has already weathered bushfire smoke, torrential rain and wind.

“Due to the rain and dust overnight the outside courts need high-pressure cleaning,” organisers tweeted.

“Our team is working across Melbourne Park to prepare the outside courts for play.”

Further rain set back Thursday’s action yet more, with some courts out of action for 5 hours after the scheduled start on Day 4.

The year’s opening Grand Slam is traditionally plagued by a different kind of weather problem: extreme heat, which causes players to swathe themselves in ice towels and occasionally halts matches.

Switzerland’s Belinda Bencic was among the few who played on schedule on Thursday, as she beat Jelena Ostapenko on Margaret Court Arena, one of the 3 stadiums with a retractable roof.

“I’m super-happy to get the match out of the way. I didn’t know the [other] courts were, like, wet and dirty and all that. But for sure it was difficult today,” Bencic said.

“It was sometimes sunny and then suddenly was almost raining. Then windy. You just kind of have to accept it and go with it and try your best.”

Melbourne, on Australia’s southern coast, has a well-earned reputation for changeable weather, prone to both cold Antarctic winds blowing across the Southern Ocean and hot Outback breezes.

Extreme weather is a growing concern in Australia after the bushfire emergency of recent months, which has left 29 dead and ravaged vast swathes of the country, torching thousands of homes.



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