Melbourne | Seeds tumble under the sun
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Maria Sharapova was one of several casualties when the sun came out in Melbourne on Tuesday and it was all systems go to complete both halves of the draw after torrential rain restricted play on Day 1.
I put myself out there. As tough as it was, I finished the match and it wasn't the way that I wanted. There is no way to get out of it except to keep believing in yourself because, if you do do all the right things and you don't believe in yourself, then that's probably a bad formula. Maria Sharapova
Getting the first round done and dusted is essential for the smooth running of any Grand Slam, and the Australian Open is no exception, as literally half of the players are then gone, such is the nature of the game.
Sharapova suffered her 3rd successive first round exit at a Grand Slam as she was knocked out by World No 19 Donna Vekic, 6-3 6-4.
The 5-time Grand Slam champion failed to get going as she lost 5 of the first 6 games in a sluggish first set.
She did recover somewhat at the start of the second when she broke Vekic and threatened to send the match to a decider, but the 2008 Melbourne champion then capitulated once more as her opponent broke twice to claim a straight sets victory.
The defeat means Sharapova is set to slip out of the top 350 in the world, which must bring into question her future, and she offered no guarantees that she will be back at the Australian Open
“I don’t know. I don’t know,” she said. “I was fortunate to get myself to be here and thanks to Craig Tiley and his team [the organisers] for allowing me to be part of this event.
“It’s tough for me to tell what’s going to happen in 12 months’ time.”
Ongoing shoulder problems limited Sharapova to a handful of tournaments in 2019, and while she reached the 4th round here last year, beating defending champion Caroline Wozniacki, the Russian cut a disconsolate figure in her post-match press conference.
Sharapova led 4-1 in the second set only for Vekic to fight back and win 5 games on the trot, with the Russian hitting 19 winners and making 31 unforced errors.
She said of her ranking drop: “I don’t know if I can look at the ranking and really think about it in depth just because I really haven’t played and I was injured most of the year. I certainly have to take that into account.
“I put myself out there. As tough as it was, I finished the match and it wasn’t the way that I wanted.
“There is no way to get out of it except to keep believing in yourself because, if you do do all the right things and you don’t believe in yourself, then that’s probably a bad formula.”
For Vekic, who is still just 23 years old, it was a comprehensive victory in her first appearance at Rod Laver Arena since falling to Wozniacki 3 years ago in Melbourne.
Her progress since has been steady and she finally passed the 3rd round at a major for the first time at Wimbledon in 2018, and has since come into her own.
Following her run to a maiden Grand Slam quarter-final at the US Open last year, to finish a season in the top 20 for the first time, Vekic joked her goals this year did not extend beyond her next match.
“I think winning through second round at Australian Open would be good,” she laughed, having never won back-to-back matches at Melbourne Park before.
Vekic put her improvement over the past 18 months down to one key factor – her coach.
“Yeah, I have been working with Torben [Beltz] for the last two years now and we have an amazing connection and we have been working really hard,” Vekic said.
“So I think that’s been the main reason for my success.
“I enjoy playing on the big stage,” she added. “But then always winning the first round of a slam is always relieving … definitely didn’t feel like playing a wildcard. Maria is a great player, a champion.
“I practised with her in the off-season and … I knew it was going to be a tough match and that I had to bring my A-game.”
Vekic awaits the winner of Alize Cornet and Monica Niculescu for the chance to reach the third round at Melbourne Park for the first time.
Late on Monday night, former US Open champion Sloane Stephens became the high profile seed to exit the women’s draw, only to be surpassed by the departure of Johanna Konta, the No 12 seed, and Amanda Anisimova, the 23rd seed, on Tuesday.
Stephens, the 2017 Grand Slam winner at Flushing Meadows and 24th seed in Melbourne, lost in 3 sets to Zhang Shuai and is in the midst of a poor run of form.
The Chinese defeated the 26-year-old American 2-6 7-5 6-2 with Stephens having now lost all of her 3 matches in 2020.
Zhang, ranked 35th in the world, was treated to a rendition of ‘happy birthday’ by the crowd as she turned 31 at midnight.
“I tried to concentrate on every point. Thanks to all my team and the national team and coaches helping me in winter training – hard work!” said Zhang.
Konta, who reached the semi-finals here 4 years ago, came into the tournament with expectations tempered by the fact she had only played one match since a quarter-final exit at the US Open in early September and fell to the impressive Ons Jabeur from Tunisia, 6-4 6-2.
A knee injury curtailed her season and Konta revealed last month that she might not even make the trip Down Under.
“It’s an unfortunate thing,” she said. “It’s part of the sport and it’s part of also the way I play, and it’s something that will come with time and matches.
“I think ultimately the main thing was to start playing again, and I am. And how I physically felt out there is obviously a massive tick for me compared to where I was in September of last year.
“I knew that by taking a decision to come play here, I was opening myself up to potentially it not going well or for it to be difficult.”
The young talented Anisimova has been struggling after being derailed by personal tragedy when her father and former coach, Konstantin Anisimova, passed away suddenly of a reported heart attack in late August, at 52, just days before the US Open and a week before her 18th birthday.
She shocked the tennis universe last June when she defeated Simona Halep, then No 3 in the world, in the quarter-finals of the French Open, announcing her arrival but after the family tragedy, has kept a low profile since.
In Melbourne she was outlasted by an in-form Zarina Dyas from Kazakhstan, 6-3 4-6 6-3.
While Anisimova’s 45 winners tripled Diyas’s total, the American teenager fired 62 unforced errors, well outpacing Diyas’s 19 miscues.
Ajla Tomljanovic produced one of the best wins of her career with a 6-1 6-1 demolition of No 31 seed Anastasija Sevastova in 77 minutes.
The Australian endured some tough draws to open her 2020 season, pushing eventual champion Karolina Pliskova the distance in Brisbane, before a close two-set tussle with Simona Halep over in Adelaide.
“This is one of my best wins quality-wise in a Slam, first round. Felt really good to be out there. I think from the first point, I felt ready,” stated the 26-year-old.
“I don’t think too much went wrong today, felt like I was hitting the ball clean.”
She commanded proceedings at Margaret Court Arena during her confidence-boosting victory to earn a second-round encounter with two-time Grand Slam champion Garbiñe Muguruza.
“Garbine had a good week last week, as well [Hobart QF]. It’s going to be tough for me. Definitely a big-hitting match next round, for sure,” added Tomljanovic, who has split two previous meetings with the former World No 1.
“That’s how tennis is. You don’t really have much time to enjoy the wins.”
Muguruza made quite an entry into the second round after having won a bizarre encounter with qualifier Shelby Rogers.
The Spaniard won 0-6 6-1 6-0 in an and 34 minutes after it seemed that the illness that had forced her to miss the Hobart International last week was wreaking havoc with her health in Melbourne as well.
The turnaround, bemusing as it was, came as relief about her game as she converted just 6 of the 15 break points she had, with 3 each coming in the second and third sets.
“Today out there, well, it was a very tough performance because I wasn’t feeling at my best at all,” Muguruza said, in her post-match press conference.
“But at the end I could manage to give my fight. Happy that I came back [after] that tough first set.”
In the third set, she faced no break points and had 20 winners to Rogers’ 15 with 22 unforced errors to Rogers’ 27.
There was better news for 2nd-seeded Karolina Pliskova, who continued her winning run after lifting the warm-up title in Brisbane with a 6-1 7-5 victory over France’s Kristina Mladenovic.
Sixth seed Belinda Bencic was a 6-3 7-5 winner over Anna Karolina Schmiedlova and there were also victories for in-form youngsters Dayana Yastremska and Elena Rybakina.
Yastremska, seeded 23, next faces Caroline Wozniacki in what could be the final match of the Dane’s career.