Moving On: Svitolina And Pliskova Serve Notice While Nishikori Perseveres

MELBOURNE, January 17, 2019 (by Michael Dickens)

As Day 4 of the Australian Open began to evolve, sixth seed Elina Svitolina of Ukraine booked her place in the third round with an impressive 6-4, 6-1 win over No. 46 Victoria Kuzmova of Slovakia on Thursday afternoon in Rod Laver Arena. The 24-year-old Svitolina won with an economy of effort that at times was overpowering: Eight service aces, a 74-percent efficiency rate in winning points on her first serve, plus 24 winners against just eight unforced errors. Svitolina broke Kuzmova three times in six tries and saved all three break points she faced during her 67 minutes on court. She has not dropped a set in her first two matches. 

“For this year, I try to be more aggressive, try to build more from the baseline. Each year it’s a learning experience, learning from your past tough experiences,” said Svitolina earlier this week, quoted by the Australian Open website.

“I had some tough matches last year in a Grand Slams, which I had to win, but I didn’t go through. I didn’t execute well. That’s why it’s about making chances and then taking them.”

Also punching their ticket to the third round was No. 7 seed Karolina Pliskova of the Czech Republic. The former World No. 1 needed three sets to beat Madison Brengle of the United States in their rain-delayed second round meeting, but came on strong after a uneven beginning. Pliskova won 4-6, 6-1, 6-0 with an offensive attack that included seven service aces and 45 winners, while Brengle was undone by 24 unforced errors. From 4-all in the first set, Pliskova won 12 of the last 13 games during the 1 hour and 38 minute match on Melbourne Arena. 

“This match had a little bit of everything,” Pliskova said during her on-court interview after her win. “Some breaks, some good tennis, and some bad mistakes from me, too. The first set wasn’t very good from my side, but she played some good points and was very solid. 

“She (Brengle) defends so well from the baseline, so it was sometimes tough to close on my shots, but I’m glad I did it in the end.”

Next, Pliskova will face No. 27 Camila Giorgi of Italy, who easily beat qualifier Iga Swiatek of Poland, 6-2, 6-0. The 178th-ranked Swiatek, who won the junior Wimbledon title last summer, was making her Grand Slam main draw debut as a qualifier at Melbourne.

Also moving into the third round on the women’s side: No. 12 seed Elise Mertens of Belgium advanced with a 6-1, 7-5 win over No. 91 Margarita Gasparyan of Russia after saving four set points, down 3-5 in the second set. She will face No. 17 seed Madison Keys of the United States, who beat No. 90 Anastasia Potapova of Russia, 6-3, 6-4. No. 13 seed Anastasija Sevastova of Latvia defeated 107th-ranked Canadian qualifier Bianca Andreescu, 6-3, 3-6, 6-2, and next faces No. 21 seed Qiang Wang of China, who beat No. 60 Aleksandra Krunic of Serbia, 6-2, 6-3. Finally, No. 28 seed Su-Wei Hsieh of Taiwan, beat 110th-ranked Laura Siegemund of Germany, 6-3, 6-4.

On the men’s side, in an unbelievable performance from both No. 8 seed Kei Nishikori of Japan and No. 69 Ivo Karlovic of Croatia, it came down to a “super” tie-break – first to 10 and win by two – in the fifth set to decide who would advance to the third round. The 39-year-old, 6-foot-10-inch Karlovic fired service ace after service ace – 59 in all – and hit his fastest serve at 219 kmh (136 mph) while Nishikori battled like a Samurai warrior throughout the three hour and 48 minute second-round battle on Margaret Court Arena. Nobody said it would be easy. When it concluded, it was sweet relief for Nishikori. He persevered through a 6-3, 7-6 (6), 5-7, 5-7, 7-6 (10-7) victory to advance. It was Karlovic’s ninth consecutive loss to a Top 10 opponent in a major.

“I don’t know what to say, it was a really tough match,” said a relieved but upbeat Nishikori during an on-court interview that followed his victory. “It could go both ways. I was down 7-6 in the tie-break, but I fought well the last couple of points. I’m very happy to win today.

“I think this match will help my confidence. It was a great match. I think we both played good tennis.”

Nishikori, who improved to 6-0 on the new season and has already won one title at Brisbane, finished with 50 fewer service aces than Karlovic – just nine. However, he played solidly throughout, winning 79 percent of his first-serve points, hitting 69 winners and committing just 17 unforced errors. There were just three breaks of serve between the two players. 

Meanwhile, the three highest seeded men’s doubles teams were in action for the first time at Melbourne Park. Defending champions and No. 1 seeds Oliver Marach of Austria and Mate Pavic of Croatia advanced over the Italian duo of Simone Bolelli and Andreas Seppi, 7-5, 6-7 (7), 6-0, and the third-seeded team of Jamie Murray of Great Britain and Bruno Soares of Brazil earned a 6-4, 7-6 (11) victory over Roman Jebavy from the Czech Republic and Andreas Molteni of Argentina. However, the No. 2 seeds, Juan Sebastian Cabal and Robert Farrah of Columbia, were upset by the American pair of Jack Sock and Jackson Withrow, 6-7 (6), 6-3, 6-4.

It feels special to come back,” said Pavic, quoted by the Australian Open website. “Our results last year bring out the good memories. Obviously the start, winning the Australian Open, we won three tournaments, winning 17 matches in a row, also played the final at the French (Open), then finished No.1 so the whole year was great.”

67 aces and Opelka still didn’t win

Imagine how Reilly Opelka of the United States – all 6-feet-11-inches of him and one of the tallest players on the ATP Tour – must have felt after losing his second-round match against 100th-ranked Thomas Fabbiano of Italy on Wednesday. Two days after his upset victory over fellow American and No. 9 seed John Isner in a battle of tie-break sets, the 102nd-ranked Opelka fired 67 service aces and hit 97 winners – but it wasn’t enough to earn victory and advance on to a third-round match with No. 20 seed Grigor Dimitrov of Bulgaria. Instead, the 5-foot-8-inch Fabbiano endured the heavy hitting onslaught by Opelka and won 6-7 (15), 6-2, 6-4, 3-6, 7-6 (10-5) in three hours and 32 minutes. By the way, Fabbiano hit just two service aces.

Opelka set a new service ace record in a match that did not last longer than 6-all in a final set. The previous record of 64 was set by Isner during the 2018 Wimbledon against Ruben Bemelmans of Belgium.

To his credit, Opelka saved five set points during a remarkable first set tie-break, at 6-7, 8-9, 10-11, 12-13 and 14-15. He clinched the set on his sixth set-point opportunity.

After playing four sets, four tie-breaks and 288 points to beat Isner, Opelka upped the ante against Fabbiano by playing five sets, two tie-breaks and 324 points.

Federer: “I like tradition, I like the long sets.”

At his post-match press conference after his second-round win over No. 190 Daniel Evans of Great Britain Wednesday night, 20-time Grand Slam champion Roger Federer, seeded third at this year’s Australian Open, was asked if he thought the AO’s new final set 18-point (first to 10) tie-break was good for the game, or should Grand Slam tie-breaks be more uniform. Federer said:

“You would think that uniform would make sense, wouldn’t it? At the same time I think it’s also exciting this way at the end of the day. They told us in the last five years, two per cent of the matches have finished this way here at the Australian Open. It’s really that little amount of matches that actually go the distance.

“I feel like, I said this also in the past, if you get to 6-6 in the fifth, you’ve had your chances, and so has your opponent had chances. I think it also gives you an opportunity to keep on playing in the tournament if it ends like here or at the U.S. Open in a tiebreaker in the fifth.

“At the same time I like tradition, I like the long sets. They even had them in normal sets, not just in the fifth set back in the day, when the likes of Tony Roche played, so forth. From that standpoint, it’s a bit disappointing.

“At the same time I understand where the game is going. It’s getting more demanding potentially. But we don’t play doubles or mixed any more like the old generation did. They were incredibly match tough, as well. I can’t even see like we are fitter or tougher than they were because I feel like they were tough as nails.

“Actually I think it’s quite funny that we have four different endings to slams. But it’s all good from my side. I hope I won’t be there anyway.”

By the numbers

At 17 years and 138 days, Amanda Anisimova is the youngest U.S. woman to reach the third round at a Grand Slam since Serena Williams (17 years and 127 days) at the 1999 Australian Open. The 87th-ranked Anisimova has been fearless in winning consecutive straight-set matches, including an upset of No. 24 seed Lesia Tsurenko of Ukraine. On Friday, she takes on No. 11 seed Aryna Sabalenka of Belarus.

What they’re saying

• World No. 1 Simona Halep of Romania, who has finished the last two seasons at the top of the WTA rankings, on what it means to be ranked No. 1: “The ranking doesn’t matter anymore. I play tennis because I like it. Now my challenge is to win every match I play. I know it’s probably impossible, but I’m trying just to stay with this thought, and give it my best.”

• Greek Next Gen ATP star Stefanos Tsitsipas, interviewed by The Last Magazine, on being both an athlete, a brand and a public figure: “Tennis is now so much about the personality off the court, interviews, being an athlete, and also being a ‘brand.’ It’s important to showcase your personality and show people who you are and why you are the way you are. The internet allows you to put yourself out there and share experiences, share stories, share yourself, and who you are in this world.”

What they’re tweeting

Chris Fowler, ESPN tennis commentator: “Finally the long awaited youth movement getting traction at a 🎾 major! Although 3 living legends remain strong favorites, 11 guys between 19-22 yrs old remain in @AustralianOpen draw (with 5 into Round 3 already) including two Americans: Frances Tiafoe (20) and Taylor Fritz (21).”

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