It was a bad day for American tennis on Day 1 of the Australian Open, which saw early exits for a host of stars, including Venus Williams, CoCo Vandeweghe and Sloane Stephens.
Twelve months after Venus was beaten by her sister Serena in the final, the family will not be represented in the second round of the tournament for the first time since 1997 as the elder sibling was bundled out by Belinda Bencic, 6-3 7-5.
Last year is last year. This is, like, a new year. You can't live in the previous year. It's impossible Venus Williams
Last year’s champion withdrew from this year’s tournament because of a lack of fitness after giving birth. Venus and Serena have only missed four Australian Opens each since their first in 1997 and 1998 respectively.
Since then Venus has won twice and Serena seven times, so it will be unusual without them over the next fortnight.
With the women’s draw without its queen, the chase for the Daphne Akhurst Trophy is as open as it could possibly be this year, and it suddenly is getting a whole lot more interesting.
It was a tough opener for Venus to contend with since the Bencic is a former top-10 player herself and back in great form after two years of injury problems.
The 20-year-old Swiss finished last season on a 15-match winning streak to book her place at Melbourne Park and won three of her four singles matches against high-class opposition at the Hopman Cup earlier this month.
Williams, the fifth seed, found herself under pressure from the start and a tally of 32 winners and only 12 unforced errors told how well Bencic played to her straight sets victory.
The 37-year-old, who had exited the Sydney International at the hands of eventual winner Angelique Kerber, said: “No, I mean, I had two tough draws. You have to get started immediately. Just not the best luck in terms of, you know, a quick start. The rest of the year to go.”
The loss to sister Serena in last year’s Australian final was already just a memory too.
“Last year is last year. This is, like, a new year. You can’t live in the previous year. It’s impossible,” she added.
For all her words, it is a major disappointment to Williams, who was superb at the Grand Slams last season, making two finals as well as the semi-finals of the US Open, and it compounded an already bad day for the American women, with US Open champion Sloane Stephens continuing her losing run.
Stephens has not won a match since her stunning triumph in New York and a 2-6 7-6(4) 6-2 defeat at the hands of China’s Zhang Shuai made it eight defeats in a row.
The stark contrast in form between last year’s two first-time Grand Slam champions continues with Jelena Ostapenko storming into round two on Monday.
The 24-year-old American, however, remained upbeat in the face of her on-going defeat: “Even though I lost, I‘m not too sad. Everything is good. Relax, everybody. It will be okay. Don’t worry. We will get back to having fun soon,” she told reporters.
“Just give me a little bit to regroup and we will be okay.”
Unlike Stephens the 20-year-old Ostapenko, who blazed to the French Open title last June to become Latvia’s first Grand Slam champion, has suffered no such hangover.
She backed up her Paris exploits to reach the Wimbledon quarter-finals and the third round in New York, and looked every inch a title contender in a 6-1 6-4 defeat of Italian veteran Francesca Schiavone to open proceedings on Rod Laver Arena.
Ostapenko, who had an edition of 55,000 stamps printed in her honour last year, all of which were sold in a day, trailed in the second set against the 37-year-old 2010 French Open champion, but clicked into gear to move through.
The seventh seed had lost in the first round of both her tournaments so far this year but, back on one of the sport’s grandest stages, she shone.
“I really enjoy to play on all centre courts, especially when there is a lot of people watching and supporting me, I really love that feeling,” Ostapenko, who reached the third round here last year, told reporters.
“Of course it’s tough, especially after winning at the age of 20. Everybody wants to beat you, but on the other side, I have nothing to lose. I already won the Grand Slam. I just enjoy every match and show my best.”
Stephens lacks the firepower of Ostapenko and while her defeat by Zhang was classified as a first-day surprise, it was quite predictable against an accurate opponent who just missed out on a seeding.
The American was assured in winning the first set, battled back from a break down in the second and served for the match at 5-4, only to be broken and dragged into a tiebreak.
Zhang, who reached the quarter-finals in 2016 as a qualifier, dominated the decider with her pinpoint groundstrokes to send the 13th seed spinning out.
All four women in the semi-finals at Flushing Meadows were from the US but three of them are already out, with 10th seed Coco Vandeweghe beaten 7-6(4) 6-2 by Hungary’s Timea Babos.
Last year’s semi-finalist Vandeweghe revealed afterwards that she had been confined to bed for four days.
“I’ve had the flu since about Sunday,” she said, almost losing her voice as she struggled to speak.
“[Today] was the first time I’ve been up in like four days,” she added. “I did the best that I could … that’s all I can ask for. She played really well.”
Vandeweghe said that she had asked organisers to move her early match to later to give her more recovery time but the request had been refused.
“I’ve seen the doctor. She’s given me some medication. I have no idea what it is, but it’s not working all that well.”
World number 51 Babos took just an hour and 46 minutes to oust an understandably tetchy Vandeweghe, who complained to the umpire about a lack of bananas on the Hisense Arena court after dropping the first set.
To add to her distress, the American was then reprimanded while waiting for the fruit to arrive when umpire Fergus Murphy called time and Vandeweghe remained in her chair.
“I’m waiting for the bananas,” she told Murphy when asked why she wasn’t ready to play. “Why should I feel uncomfortable because the court is ill-prepared?”
After around another minute a banana arrived and Vandeweghe, who said she hadn’t been able to practise for four days, was hit with a code violation for delaying the match.
It didn’t give her an energy boost as the World No 9, who is coached by former Wimbledon champion Pat Cash, made 28 unforced errors in slumping to defeat.
As for Babos, she reflected: “In women’s tennis, anything can happen when there is no Serena Williams.”
Other Americans on the losing side on Day 1 were Taylor Townsend, Alison Riske, Jennifer Brady and Catherine Bellis, while the sole survivor was Nicole Gibbs who scored an easy win over Viktoria Tomova from Bulgaria, 6-1 6-1.
Meanwhile, second-seeded Caroline Wozniacki is out there enjoying herself.
The former World No 1 is riding high in the rankings again after reaching eight finals in 2017, with victories in Tokyo in September and at the season-ending Tour Championship.
“I think I’ve improved everything,” said Wozniacki ahead of her first-round clash Monday with Romania’s Mihaela Buzarnescu, and she oozed confidence as she delivered a solid performance to win through 6-2 6-3.
Watched by her fiancée, David Lee, seated in the player box, the Dane looked in charge despite dropping her serve once on the match.
“She’s a tricky opponent – lefty serve, high balls, so I’m happy to come through,” said Wozniacki after the match.
“I’m out there enjoying myself and we’ll see how it goes. There are a lot of great players in the draw, so we’ll just see.”
Local favourite Samantha Stosur surrendered a match point before falling to World No 58 Monica Puig in a stunning 4-6 7-6(6) 6-4 comeback.
Stosur, who has reached the fourth round twice at her home Grand Slam, struck 88 per cent of first serves to command an opening set with 10 winners on the board.
The world No 41 led the second set with a 3-2 break lead, before a sumptuous lob from the Olympic champion helped restore parity to then force a tiebreak
Stosur fought back from 2-4 to match point at 6-5, but Puig teased a forehand error off the Australian’s racket to prolong the contest, before an acute angled volley clinched a 70-minute set.
Tied at 3-3, Puig chased down a Stosur approach to laser a single-handed backhand down the line en route to the pivotal break, maintaining her advantage to seal her spot in the second round.
Puig will play Estonia’s Kaia Kanepi in the second round after she defeated the 24th seed Dominika Cibulkova in straight sets, 6-2 6-2.
In evening’s play, Elina Svitolina, the fourth seed from the Ukraine, comfortably saw off a qualifier, Ivana Jorovic from Serbia, 6-3 6-2.