Melbourne | Wozniacki and Kerber make strong starts as heat takes its toll
Defending champion Caroline Wozniacki’s bid to retain her Australian Open title began with a convincing 6-3 6-4 win over Alison Van Uytvanck of Belgium on Monday, Day 1 of the championships in Melbourne.
I have such incredible memories from last year – it was such an emotional night, and I never cry! Now I sometimes hear, ‘Wozzy Wozzy Wozzy’, so I guess that my ‘Aussie Aussie Aussie’, right? Caroline Wozniacki
The third seed won her maiden Slam here last year and is bidding to become the first woman to defend the title since Victoria Azarenka in 2013.
The Dane comfortably eased past World No 52 Van Uytvanck, showing no outward sign of rheumatoid arthritis, the debilitating auto-immune disease that has threatened to derail her career.
She broke the Belgian once in each set, and kept her unforced errors down to win the baseline battle in an hour and 33 minutes in the first match of the evening session at the Rod Laver Arena.
The 24-year-old Van Uytvanck, ranked 52, troubled Wozniacki with some well-disguised drop shots but did not have enough to register a first win at Melbourne Park in her fifth appearance in both singles and doubles.
Wozniacki sealed the match with a forehand winner on her third match point and will next meet Sweden’s Johanna Larsson, who progressed after Vera Lapko of Belarus retired while trailing 7-6(5) 3-0.
The Dane was relieved to come through a tricky opening match in front of an appreciative Laver crowd.
“I think she played very well,” she said of Van Uytvanck. “The first set was a pretty high level, and she stepped it up at moments and really hit her targets.
“It’s such a special feeling,” she added when asked about her return to Melbourne Park as the reigning champion.
“I have such incredible memories from last year – it was such an emotional night, and I never cry! Now I sometimes hear, ‘Wozzy Wozzy Wozzy’, so I guess that my ‘Aussie Aussie Aussie’, right?”
Angelique Kerber sent a message to the rest of the field after she thrashed Slovenia Polona Hercog, 6-2 6-2, on Rod Laver Arena, erasing any lingering heartbreak from her previous outing when she departed the court to a standing ovation after falling in a semi-final thriller, letting two match points slip against Simona Halep.
The German World No 2 has looked impressive all season and clinically converted four of five break point opportunities to seal a comfortable first round win, and will next face Brazilian qualifier Beatriz Haddad Maia.
Her 15 unforced errors paled in comparison to the World No 97’s 41, despite finishing with just eight winners to 24.
“It’s a really special court, a really special place for me,” Kerber said. “It’s where it all started for me, it’s where I won my first Grand Slam … Every time I walk on this court I have such great memories.”
Under the guidance of Wim Fissette, the esteemed former coach of Kim Clijsters, Kerber had recovered her ranking from No 21 back to No 3 in 2018, winning Sydney and denying Serena Williams’ bid for a record-equalling 24th Grand Slam title in the Wimbledon final.
Indifferent form, however, and a difference in opinions prompted a split ahead of the WTA Finals in Singapore when Kerber wanted new direction, and it was former Australian Open runner-up and fellow German, Rainer Schuettler, whom she appointed to provide that.
Despite falling to Petra Kvitova in the quarter-finals of her Sydney title defence last week, four wins from as many matches at the Hopman Cup leading in had the German quietly assured she and Schuettler were headed in the right direction.
Kerber dominated the Slovenian early on with her impeccable groundstrokes and secured a 4-1 lead in very quick fashion.
The 30-year-old was only forced to save one break point in the first set as she won the opener in 38 minutes.
Although Hercog had forced the issue a bit more in the second set, the same result was produced as Kerber opened up another 4-1 lead.
The Slovenian failed to convert any of her three break points as her 47 unforced errors would prove costly. Eventually Kerber served out a 74-minute win to progress into the next round.
After the match the German stated that she felt good despite the heat: “I am feeling and my body was feeling good and I’m happy I could play a little more than one hour today.”
It wasn’t a good day for another German, however, as 14th seed Julia Goerges crashed out in a three-set defeat to powerful Danielle Collins.
The American played a very good last set and a half to take out the Auckland winner, 2-6 7-6(5) 6-4, in brutal heat.
The loss will be even more frustrating for Goerges who served for the match at 6-5 in the second set.
It could prove good news for Kerber, though, as she was scheduled to play Goerges in the fourth round and will now avoid the big-serving German in the last 16.
As for Collins, she could produce a big threat in the tournament as she has an all-American clash with Sachia Vickery in the next round.
Home favourite Ash Barty built on her run to the Sydney International final to spark her Australian Open 2019 campaign into life with a 6-2 6-2 victory over World No 67 Luksika Kumkhum on Monday evening.
Despite succumbing to Petra Kvitova in an enthralling 1-6 7-5 7-6(3) Sydney finale on Saturday, Barty didn’t appear to be feeling the effects of that gruelling two-hour-and-19-minute contest on Margaret Court Arena just two days later.
“We’ve split the last two times we’ve played, so I knew I had to be ready,” said Barty.
“It took a little while to get going. A couple slow games at the start. Once I got moving and into the rhythm of things, obviously it’s a little bit different conditions from here as it is to Sydney, felt like I was comfortable.
“I served well, was able to get into return games really well, which is always a positive for me. When I can control the ball off the first shot after serve and return, especially with my forehand, that’s when I’m in control most matches. I’m happy I came through that in pretty straight-forward fashion.”
Barty, who reached the third round at Melbourne Park back in 2017 and 2018, kept command of proceedings to book a second round against Wang Yafan, a 6-4 6-0 win over Australian youngster Ellen Perez earlier in the day.
The notorious Melbourne heat took its toll on a third German, Andrea Petkovic, who collapsed on court and required urgent attention during her first-round clash with Irina-Camelia Begu
Petkovic, a 2011 quarter-finalist here, won the first set 7-6 in the blistering heat, but trailed 4-3 in the second, when the World No 64 collapsed to the ground.
Medical officials raced onto Court 5 and checked the 31-year-old’s pulse and blood pressure.
Petkovic attempted to get to her feet but was initially unable to do so, and consequently retired from the match, appearing wobbly when embracing opponent Begu for a brief hug.
Heat stroke is thought to be the cause of the incident, although it has yet to be officially confirmed.
Temperatures were expected to soar to about 36-37 Celsius (96-99 Fahrenheit) on day one, although they fell shortly before the prediction.
An in-form Croat Donna Vekic needed just 75 minutes to dismiss Kristina Mladenovic, 6-2 6-4, and march towards the second round, delivering fury from the first serve and outplaying the French girl on the return as well.
Mladenovic did score two breaks but that was never enough after such a poor performance behind her initial shot, struggling on both the first and second serve and getting broken five times from eight opportunities she gave to the Croat.
The 11th seed Aryna Sabalenka had no troubles against the Russian qualifier Anna Kalinskaya, delivering a 6-1 6-4 win in 66 minutes to kick off her campaign in a perfect manner, never losing her serve and securing three breaks to stay ahead all the time.
A former Australian Open semi-finalist and the 5th seed Sloane Stephens scored her first win in Melbourne since 2014 following a commanding 6-4 6-2 win over the compatriot Taylor Townsend in just 67 minutes.
The better-ranked American served at 80% and, despite losing serve twice, she held the advantage after erasing an early deficit in the opening set, hitting more winners and fewer unforced errors to leave the rival far behind.
Townsend made the best possible start after seizing an opening eight points but she couldn’t build more on that, losing serve in game three and also the edge on the return in the rest of the set, allowing Stephens to impose her strokes and wait for another chance on the return patiently.
She wasted three break points at 3-3 but found the way to steal Townsend’s serve two games later before closing the opener with a hold at 15 in game 10.
Stephens was on a roll now, breaking three times in a row in the second set and sealing the deal on the fifth match point while leading 5-2 to secure the place in the second round.
Later the 2017 US Open winner was asked about her coaching situation, having recently split with coach Kamau Murray, and with reports suggesting she has started working with long-time adviser Sylvester Black.
“Coaching situation is the same. Everyone is still around. Like I said, Kamau and I needed a break, we are in a great space,” the American said.
“I surrounded myself with people here that I have known for a long time that I’m comfortable with. I wanted to be happy and hopefully that would allow me to play better.”
When the journalist went for a follow-up question, things started to go astray when asking: “So is Sly Black here with you?”; Stephens responded: “Did you watch the match?
“Sorry, I was watching another one I had to watch. Sorry,” the journalist said.
Stephens testily asked: “Did anyone watch the match?”
After first getting a response of silence but then seeing some nodding heads, Stephens continued: “He’s here, then, because I know somebody knows. Okay. Sly’s here.”
An example of it being a good idea to not ask questions that will make you look stupid.