Three weeks late and, after undergoing many trials and tribulations, the Australian Open got under way with a number of restrictions thanks to the Covid-19 pandemic, including a limited number of spectators.
Probably the longest match I've ever played and a tough five-setter against a great player,. Emil Ruusuvuori
In what has been a gargantuan effort, Tennis Australia have succeeded in staging the first major of the season against the odds with many over the last few months, expecting it to be cancelled.
Craig Tilley, the CEO and Tournament Director must be feeling pleased with himself and the team as spectators trickled into Melbourne Park on the opening day. Limited to 30,000 it provided the players with some atmosphere after competing in empty stadiums over the last six months or so.
However they must wear masks when entering the grounds and while moving around, removing them only when they are seated in their allotted area.
The venue itself has been divided into three zones for ease of contact tracing. Players and staff are in a bubble well away from the public and should the spectators be banned following a positive test, the event itself can continue.
“We’ve got processes in place here to protect everyone,” Tiley said. “The weather is going to be great this week. It’s cool for February. And so I think for fans to come out and watch the tennis and feel comfortable and safe, this will be a good place to be.”
And those who did turn up were not disappointed with the day session serving up wins for last year’s semi-finalist Alexander Zverev as well as for the 2014 champion Stan Wawrinka plus Dominic Thiem, runner-up 12 months ago, Milos Raonic and Grigor Dimitrov.
While they celebrated their opening round successes, Gael Monfils was reduced to tears following his loss to the Finn Emil Ruusuvuori 3-6 6-4 7-5 3-6 6-3 after three-hours and 46-minutes.
The Frenchman, seeded 10, is the first seed to crash out as he continues to struggle for his first win since the tour resumed last September. The loss was his sixth straight defeat on tour (seventh when including his loss at the ATP Cup), with his last win coming in February 2020 against compatriot Richard Gasquet.
“I don’t have any confidence. I’d like to get out of this nightmare, but I can’t,” he told the media, clutching his head .
“I don’t know when it’s going to end, it’s hard. Every time I get here, I feel judged, I’ve lost again.
“I’m being honest and it’s going to take time.”
In contrast the 21-year-old Finn, ranked 86 and making his debut in Melbourne, revealed he had practiced with Monfils during their 14-day quarantine, was happy with his performance.
“Probably the longest match I’ve ever played and a tough five-setter against a great player,” Ruusuvuori said.
Joining the youngster in the second round is the sixth seed Alexander Zverev who smashed a racket in frustration in the econ set having been made to work hard by the 76th ranked Marcos Giron of the US.
The German, now sporting a sleeveless vest, is chasing his maiden Grand Slam title, lost a tight first set but recovered in time to grind a 6-7(8) 7-6(5) 6-3 6-2 after two hours and 45-minutes on the back of 50 winners.
“He played incredible. He had me on the ropes, particularly in the second set tie-break,” said Zverev, who is into round two for a fifth straight year.
“I was just happy to get through. Playing the first round of a Grand Slam is never easy. My body felt a little fatigued, I was a little tired.”
Also through is Stan Wawrinka, the former champion who has admitted he has been suffering long-term after-effects of Covid-19 which he contracted last year.
His 6-3 6-2 6-4 victory over the 108th ranked Pedro Sousa of Portugal will have come as a great relief as the 17th seed was rarely tested during the 90-minute encounter.
“I was feeling good. I think it was a great match for a first round,” Wawrinka said. “[I was] playing some good balls, I was playing aggressive, feeling better than last week. So I’m improving and happy to get through.”
The Swiss will face Marton Fucsovics in the second round, following the Hungarian’s five-set win over Australian Marc Polmans.
“It’s always amazing, always special coming back here,” Wawrinka added on recollecting his previous success in Melbourne. “Winning my first Grand Slam was something unbelievable, amazing memories, amazing always the atmosphere and emotion when I enter on the court here.”
Last year Dominic Thiem came close to winning his first Grand Slam when he pushed Novak Djokovic to a though five-setter for his eighth AO title.
However the Austrian has returned to Melbourne as the US Open champion and is now keen to go one stage further in Melbourne but was given an unexpected tough opening test by the Kazakh veteran Mikhail Kukushkin.
The third-seeded Austrian eventually came through on Rod Laver Arena 7-6(2) 6-2 6-3.
“It’s interesting because it’s the first time I’ve met him and there’s not too many (players) I didn’t meet on tour,” said Thiem of his opponent.
“He’s very experienced and the first set was super-challenging. But, in general, I’m very happy to be back and have success in the first round.”
Milos Raonic had the honour of being the first winner in the men’s draw at this year’s AO as he swept aside Argentina’s Federico Cora 6-3 6-3 6-2
“It’s good to be efficient early on,” Raonic said. “A lot goes on throughout two weeks. There could be really difficult moments. There’s bound to be. So, I think to be efficient early, especially after competing just last week (at the ATP Cup), that kind of efficiency, hopefully it can pay off down the line.”
Raonic hit 17 aces in the victory, needing just an hour and 35-minutes to defeat the 92nd-ranked Coria. Raonic hit 51 winners compared to Coria’s nine.
The Canadian, a former semi-finalist, faces 80th-ranked Corentin Moutet in round two the 21-year-old Frenchman having beaten John Millman of Australia in a lengthy battle 6-4 6-7(4) 3-6 6-2 6-3.
Two other Australians were successful, namely Aussie, Alex Bolt and James Duckworth who defeated Norbert Gombos and Damir Dzumhur respectively, 6-2 6-2 4-6 6-3 and 6-3 6-2 6-4.
In other action Reilly Opelka beat Yen-Hsun Lu 6-3 7-6(2) 6-3 and Taylor Fritz defeated Albert Ramos-Vinolas 7-6(6) 3-6 2-6 7-6(6)