Melbourne | Watson and Kartal fall in AO Qualies, where dreams are made or shattered

Qualifying for the 2023 Australian Open began at Melbourne Park on Monday, with 128 women hopeful of gaining a place in the singles main draw next week, but for Britons Heather Watson and Sonay Kartal, the quest is already over as both lost their respective opening matches.

I started from such a ground zero that it was just, like, first thing was just walking of my own accord, and having that as a successful moment. [But] I've been here before, I've seen the big stadiums, I've been on there at important moments... It's definitely something to have in your back pocket if you've done it before. Coco Vandeweghe

Watson had thrashed her opponent, Aliona Bolsova, 6-1 6-1, back in October, but this time round the Spaniard was a different proposition, and she went down, 7-6(4) 6-3.

While the British No 5 became the highest profile British casualty, Kartal took America’s Elizabeth Mandlik to a decider after fighting back in the second set before also falling, 6-4 3-6 6-1.

Mandlik, the No 21 seed, is the daughter of 4-time major champion Hana Mandlikova, and the American will take on Japan’s Mai Hontama in the next round, who found her way past Mexico’s Marcela Zacarias, 7-6(8) 6-3.

Grand Slam qualifying is where dreams are born, and hopes can shatter, and only 16 women will gain entry into the main draw at Melbourne Park, where hopeful stars of tomorrow are competing against the tour veterans of today.

In 2019, you might have spotted Polish teenager Iga Swiatek in qualifying, then almost an unknown and now the World No 1, or, last January, young Italian Martina Trevisan, who a few months later reached the semi-finals at the French Open.

Last year, at Melbourne Park, ‘Qualies’ could be watched for free throughout the week, but this year spectators must pay to get in – A$10 for adults and A$5 for children aged 3 to 14.

Organisers are calling it ‘Welcome Week’, and tickets can also get fans court-side to see practice sessions by some top players.

There is also a kids’ day coming up, and a players’ hit-and-giggle fundraiser, but these are being ticketed separately.

Grand Slam qualifying has taken on greater weight since Emma Raducanu became the unlikeliest of major champions at the 2021 US Open, winning 3 rounds of qualifying, then storming through the main draw, to end the tournament fortnight as the champion, and all while ranked World No 150.

The most famous of all qualifiers, Emma Raducanu, who won the US Open as one in 2021, has been enjoying Elwood Beach hoping she can play the 2023 Australian Open at Melbourne Park next week after an ankle injury

© Graham Denholm/Getty Images

Former Top-tenner Coco Vandeweghe, who knows all about the highs and lows, got her AO23 qualifying campaign underway with a gritty win over Australia’s Arina Rodionova.

Vandeweghe needed 5 match points to subdue Rodionova, eventually winning 6-4 7-6(8) to set up a 2nd-round qualifying match-up with Croatia’s Petra Marcinko, last year’s AO girls’ singles champion.

The 31-year-old American continues to work her way back from a succession of demoralising injuries, and took another meaningful step against Rodionova.

“It’s just sticking with it; it’s nerves out there,” she told “I’ve been playing professionally for god knows how many years, it’s still difficult to close out a first-round match.”

Vandeweghe, blessed with easy power and one of the best serves in women’s tennis, has slowly but surely built her way back up since 2019 after battling multiple physical issues.

“When you go from being an active professional athlete to having a small goal of like, let’s just walk, is quite humbling,” Vandeweghe said. “It’s hard to say happy [with my progress] because, when I was knocked out of the game, I was No 9 in the world.

“And I wanna be back in the top 10 and contending for Slams, and all that stuff, but what I’m, honestly, the most happy about is I’m able to compete again.

“I never thought I’d be able to compete, with my foot injury that I sustained in 2018. I had no ability to walk; I had CRPS, which is a neurological issue, and along with stress fractures. Basically a broken foot.

“And then I blew off my finger during COVID. So thing after thing, and I was just like, when is it gonna stop?

“To come back, definitely, making top 100 is a huge goal. And finishing the year healthy. That’s probably the No 1 goal. But Top 100 would be great.”

From a low of No 636 when she returned in July of that year, she already has risen to 128, helped in 2022 by a quarter-final in Charleston and a WTA 125K title in Concorde, which was her first tournament victory of any kind in more than 6 years.

Coco Vandeweghe got her AO23 qualifying campaign underway with a gritty win over Australia’s Arina Rodionova on Monday

Vandeweghe came within a set of the AO 2017 final, and has the game and experience to succeed at the highest level, which, together her returning confidence, makes her an extremely dangerous proposition in AO qualifying.

“I would definitely say that I [had a] me-against-the-world kind of feeling when I was top 10 in the world, contending for Slams, beating legends of the game and also losing to legends of the game,” she added. “Just having those opportunities, that you take for granted when you’re successful, and young and healthy, and then when that gets taken away in an instance, you realise, like, who am I? Why am I doing this? Can I ever do this again?

“I started from such a ground zero that it was just, like, first thing was just walking of my own accord, and having that as a successful moment.

“[But] I’ve been here before, I’ve seen the big stadiums, I’ve been on there at important moments… It’s definitely something to have in your back pocket if you’ve done it before.”

Eugenie Bouchard narrowly lost her opening qualifying match to Ashlyn Krueger in 3 sets

© Arun Sankar/AFP via Getty Images

Her fellow American Ashlyn Krueger stopped former World No 5 Eugenie Bouchard from Canada in 3 sets, another player who finds herself in a similar situation to Vandeweghe.

Bouchard became a household name with her run to the Australian Open 2014 semi-finals, and the result kick-started an incredible year for the Canadian, who went on to reach the Roland Garros semi-finals and Wimbledon final, then cracked the world’s Top 5.

She also backed up her AO 2014 semi-final with a quarter-final finish in 2015.

Bouchard is currently ranked 327 after missing almost 18 months of competition due to a shoulder surgery, which is an encouraging result given she was unranked when she came back in August.

Since returning, the aggressive base-liner has notched a WTA quarter-final in Chennai, qualified for the WTA 500 event in Ostrava, and won a round at the 1000-level tournament in Guadalajara.

Bouchard hasn’t contested the main draw of a Grand Slam tournament since Roland Garros in 2020, and she will not make it into the main draw this year after a disappointing, narrow 1st-round loss to Krueger, 6-3 1-6 6-4.

Seeds Laura Pigossi, Elena-Gabriela Ruse, Leolia Jeanjean and Clara Burel, and another AO junior champion in Victoria Jiminez Kasintseva, were other winners, as were Australians Destanee Aiava and Zoe Hives.

American Alycia Parks is the No 1 seed in Australian Open Qualifying

© Saeed Khan/AFP via Getty Images

Among the players to watch this week is Alycia Parks, who made fans sit up and take notice when she blasted 59 winners past Maria Sakkari to reach the WTA Ostrava quarter-finals, having beaten former World No 1 Karolina Pliskova, a round earlier.

Ranked 133, Parks is the second American female player ranked outside the top-100 to win against a Top 10 opponent this season.

The 21-year-old gets her power from an athletic 185cm-tall frame, and she equalled the world record for the fastest women’s serve in US Open 2021 qualifying, when she sent one down at 207.6km/h.

Parks began 2022 ranked outside the top 200 but rose steadily with success on the ITF circuit.

Then came the run in Ostrava, where it took eventual champion Barbora Krejcikova to stop her, in two tight sets.

Late in the season she halved her ranking in just three weeks, vaulting from World No 150 to 75 after winning consecutive WTA 125K titles in Andorra and Angers.

She narrowly missed the AO 2023 main-draw entry cut-off, but is the No 1 seed in qualifying and begins her campaign on a 10-match winning streak.

Linda Noskova, the No 2 seed, is a fast-rising Czech, who opened her season with a bang, thanks to her extraordinary run to the Adelaide International 1 final.

After qualifying for the main draw, the 18-year-old beat Daria Kasatkina, Victoria Azarenka and World No 2 Ons Jabeur to become the youngest WTA finalist in Australia in 17 years, and the youngest to beat a top-two player in a completed match since 2008.

She struck a tour-high 150 winners in 2023, while her backhand is an exceptional weapon, which puts her well ahead of the second-placed Aryna Sabalenka, with 93.

Noskova is one of several impressive Czech women emerging in the sport, and was already attracting attention in 2022, a year she started ranked 265 before peaking at 87th in August.

Her rise was made possible by 2 ITF titles among 40 match wins, and she also came very close to knocking Raducanu out in the first round of Roland Garros.



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