MELBOURNE, January 21, 2020 (by Michael Dickens)
The 2020 Australian Open, the first Grand Slam of the year – and of the decade – began Monday in Melbourne with a star-studded lineup on Rod Laver Arena that featured both defending singles champions, Naomi Osaka and Novak Djokovic, in action.
Add to the Opening Day mix the greatest male and female players of all time, Roger Federer and Serena Williams, and top it off with home country hero Ashleigh Barty to kick off the first night session of the fortnight, and … well, you get the idea. It was a day and night for tennis fans, both in person and across the world who tuned via their TV sets, iPads and smartphones, to enjoy and appreciate. Combined, these five Grand Slam champions who played their first-round matches on Monday have won an amazing 62 majors.
Unfortunately, rain was also in the mix. It arrived by the middle of the afternoon and remained the rest of the day, scrubbing 32 of 64 scheduled matches – half of the Opening Day schedule. Fortunately, with retractable roofs covering the three biggest courts at Melbourne Park – Rod Laver Arena, Margaret Court Arena and Melbourne Arena – the show went on as scheduled and finished about 11:30 p.m., when Djokovic beat Jan-Lennard Struff of Germany, 7-6 (5), 6-2, 2-6, 6-1, after two hours and 16 minutes on Rod Laver Arena for his 900th ATP Tour-level career victory. Nine outdoor matches that began and were suspended because of rain will be added to a bulging Tuesday order of play.
Maturing Gauff wins generational battle
One match which did go on – and with much anticipation – was a generational battle between 39-year-old Venus Williams, winner of seven Grand Slams who was making her 20th Australian Open appearance, and teen sensation Coco Gauff, the youngest player in the draw, on Margaret Court Arena. In a reprise of their epic, first-round Wimbledon encounter from last summer, in which the unknown 15-year-old Gauff shocked the world by upsetting her idol, this time the outcome between the oldest and youngest U.S. players yielded a similar result: Gauff won 7-6 (5), 6-3 in one hour and 37 minutes. The young American, ranked 67th, showed remarkable maturity against the future Hall of Famer, whose ranking has declined to 55th.
“I feel like my mindset has changed since the US Open,” expressed Gauff, who since beating Williams at Wimbledon last July played in her first US Open main draw and went on to win her first WTA title last fall in Linz, Austria. “US Open, I feel like I was on edge every match just because everyone was talking about US Open before Wimbledon even ended. so I knew that was the next thing.
“I guess I came to the realization that I need to play my game, not worry about what people think of me. At the end of the day, I did have three good matches, both US Open and Wimbledon. I still have a lot more to, I guess, become like one of those big names. I feel like I still have a lot to improve.”
Gauff will need to cut down on her unforced errors – she committed 30 against Williams – but she hit 17 winners and reached 191 km/h with her first serve, both positive numbers.
Asked what her mission in tennis is, Gauff didn’t hesitate when she replied: “My mission is to be the greatest. That’s my goal, to win as many Grand Slams as possible. But for today, my mission was to win.”
Venus gave props to Coco during her post-match press conference. She said: “She clearly wants it, works very hard, is extremely mature for her age.”
Barty puts on a happy face
Looking back on the first day of the fortnight, Barty put on a happy face that even the rain couldn’t dampen. “I’m healthy, I’m happy. I’m coming into the first Grand Slam of the year with a smile on my face. That’s all I could ask of myself,” said the women’s World No. 1, prior to her 5-7, 6-1, 6-1 first-round victory against No. 120 Lesia Tsurenko of Ukraine.
All around Melbourne, Barty’s face and image could be seen everywhere, including splashed across all of the Sunday newspapers as well as on posters and billboards. “Yeah, my face is everywhere a little bit, isn’t it? I’m a little sick of it to be honest,” said Barty, drawing laughter from the media who assembled for her interview session on Sunday.
The top-seeded Barty, who won a WTA tuneup tournament in Brisbane over the weekend, arrived at this year’s Australian Open trying to be the first Aussie woman since 1978 to win the Happy Slam since Chris O’Neil. “There’s no extra pressure. I don’t read the papers. I don’t kind of look into any more than I need to. I’m here with my team trying to do the best we can. It’s amazing to have so much support and so much love from the Australian public. I’ve really felt that in an exceptional way over the last 12 months. It’s been incredible,” she said.
Osaka overcomes nerves to win
Meanwhile, former World No. 1 Osaka opened the day session on Rod Laver Arena with a 6-2, 6-4 win over No. 57 Marie Bouzkova of Czech Republic in one hour and 20 minutes to begin her title defense. The No. 3 seed won 74 percent of her first-serve points and hit 29 winners. She broke Bouzkova four times and outpointed her opponent 64-49, coming from down 2-4 in the final set to earn the victory.
During her on-court interview, Osaka, who committed 28 unforced errors, said: “It was really tough for me, trying to control my nerves. I was really glad to finish it in two.
“For me, I’ve never played her before, so it’s tough to play someone you’ve never played in the first round of a Grand Slam,” the 22-year-old Osaka said of Bouzkova, 21, a former US Open junior champion who was making her Australian Open main draw debut. “Oh my god, she’s younger than me! So that’s really tough too. I just know that she’s going to become a great player and we’re going to play a lot of really hard matches.”
Serena wins one for her daughter
Later, Serena Williams, 38, whose last Grand Slam triumph came at the 2017 Australian Open, followed Osaka on Rod Laver Arena with an easy 6-0, 6-3 win over Russian teenager Anastasia Potapova, ranked 90th, that lasted just 58 minutes. The eighth-seeded Serena, a seven-time winner of the year’s first major, came into the Australian Open just a week after she captured the 73rd singles title of her career at Auckland and first since becoming a mom in 2017.
Williams, who had lost four Grand Slam finals since winning in Melbourne three years ago, fired nine aces, hit 24 winners and converted five of six break points against the 18-year-old former Wimbledon junior champion to move into the next round against Tamara Zidansek of Slovenia.
“I hadn’t been able to win as a mom, so it was nice to finally be able to win a tournament with a 2-year-old now,” Williams said of her win at the ASB Classic earlier this month in New Zealand during an on-court interview. “I’ve been pretty close, but it was special for me and for her. I hope for her.”
Federer begins year on winning note
The day session ended on Rod Laver Arena as the third-seeded Federer easily beat No. 75 Steve Johnson of the United States, 6-3, 6-2, 6-2, in 91 minutes to kick off his new season. It was the 21st consecutive Australian Open main draw that the 38-year-old Federer has played in and it was his first competitive match since the ATP Finals last November. The Swiss maestro fired 11 aces, hit 34 winners and took advantage of 19 unforced errors by his opponent. Federer outpointed Johnson 87-52.
“I haven’t played proper matches in many, many weeks, and probably 95 percent of the guys are coming here with matches,” Federer said about coming in with lower expectations to win his 21st career major. ”When you win it’s all good, you know. Or even when you make a semis and beyond, you know you’re in good shape, plus you’re just coming off the off-season so you have the confidence. You have practice, you know, flowing through your body, too.
”The problem is sometimes when you play too many matches and you don’t have that practice block, in a way you’re just playing to win, just trying to weasel your way to the next victory and you forget how to properly play tennis.”
Shapovalov loss among biggest surprises
When play started at Melbourne Park, it was a comfortable 70º F (21.1º C), the air quality was good (unlike last week during qualifying when smoke coming from the Australian bushfires blurred skies over Melbourne) and humidity was a manageable 80 percent. Before the rain arrived, among the biggest surprises – and disappointments – was No. 13 seed Denis Shapovalov of Canada, who came into the first major of the year off of good performances in the recent Davis Cup and ATP Cup competitions. The 20-year-old Canadian was ousted in four sets by No. 67 Marton Fucsovics, 6-3, 6-7 (9), 6-1, 7-6 (3), in the first round on Margaret Court Arena. Fucsovics hit 42 winners to offset his 35 unforced errors and he withstood Shapovalov’s 38 winners and 190 km/h average first serve to win in three hours and 13 minutes.
Shapovalov was below his best – he hit 62 unforced errors – and, maybe, his bad temperament got the best of him. According to The Tennis Podcast: “At one point he complained to the umpire for giving him a code violation when he smashed his racquet but didn’t break it.”
— #AusOpen (@AustralianOpen) January 20, 2020
Coming in, Shapovalov had been one of the most outspoken critics of the tournament’s slow response to the impact of the Australian climate crisis caused by the country’s bushfires, which has caused a degradation of air quality. Shapovalov said he would refuse to play if, in his opinion, the conditions were unsafe – regardless of what the tournament says. “It’s a grand slam, it’s a big opportunity,” he said. “But I’m 20 years old, I don’t want to risk my life, risk my health, being out there playing out there in these conditions, when I can for the next 10, 15 years. For my own health, if it gets bad, I just don’t see what the point is.”
Wozniacki begins her opening farewell
Just two years ago, Caroline Wozniacki lifted her first Grand Slam trophy by winning the 2018 Australian Open. On Monday, she began the last tournament of her career against Kristie Ahn of the United States, winning her first-round match 6-1, 6-3 in one hour and 25 minutes on Melbourne Arena. The former World No. 1 from Denmark, who is now ranked 36th and unseeded, announced her retirement during the off-season citing a desire to pursue other things beyond tennis.
“I feel good, you know, having won my first match here. You know, it’s always tricky, especially knowing it’s my last tournament. There’s a lot of just emotions, but I tried to keep them in check, and I think I did very well today,” Wozniacki said after coming off court. She outpointed Ahn 63-42. “I think I’m just trying to enjoy every moment.”
Around Melbourne Park
Among seeded men moving into the second round were: No. 8 Matteo Berrettini of Italy, who defeated wild card Andrew Harris from Australia, 6-3, 6-1, 6-3.
Seeded women advancing included: No. 7 Petra Kvitova of the Czech Republic, No. 13 Petra Martic of Croatia and No. 14 Sofia Kenin from the United States.. Kvitova beat Katerina Siniakova of the Czech Republic, 6-0, 6-1, Martic earned a 6-3, 6-0 win over Christina McHale of the U.S., and Kenin advanced over qualifier Martina Trevisan of Italy, 6-2, 6-4.
The biggest upset in the women’s draw came as No. 24 seed Sloane Stephens of the U.S. fell to 35th-ranked Zhang Shuai of China, 2-6, 7-5, 6-2.
What they said
• Naomi Osaka, who began defense of her 2018 Australian Open title, said during an on-court interview after winning her first-round match: “You probably didn’t come for me, but thanks for filling up the stadium.”
• Ashleigh Barty on the getting nervy for the first round of a Grand Slam: “Slams always feel like there’s a lot of chaos going because there’s so many people. It’s busy with singles and doubles players, mixed players, families, coaches, everyone underneath. It’s just chaos. When you’re able to separate that from when you step on the court is when you can do a little bit better, play a little bit better, feel a little bit more comfortable. I feel like we’ve been able to do that better and better with each slam that I’ve played. It’s an experience thing. You have to learn how to deal with it, but it’s getting better.”
• Roger Federer on his past success at the Australian Open, which he has won six times: “It’s nice if you play well, but there is no drama as if it doesn’t go well for the rest of the season, in my opinion. It’s worse if later in the season success is not there and you’re missing that block of practice and you can’t rely on it anymore because it’s too far back. That’s why I like to have sort of longer practice sessions, probably twice a year, because I think that helps my game.”
• Caroline Wozniacki on the importance of being outgoing toward other players: “I hope that the younger generation will also be nice to each other, because, you know, it’s just a sport and we all try our best out here. We all want to be the best that we can, but at the end of the day, there is a life outside of the court. I think that’s even more important.”
By the numbers
• The dubious honor for first completed match of the Australian Open fortnight to went to Julia Goerges of Germany, who beat Viktoria Kuzmova from Slovakia, 6-1, 6-2, on Court 5. It lasted only 56 minutes.
• The first men’s or women’s seed to fall was men’s No. 25 Borna Coric of Croatia, who lost to Sam Querrey of the United States, 6-3, 6-4, 6-4 in one hour and 44 minutes on 1573 Arena. Since beating Dominic Thiem in his opening match at the ATP Cup earlier this month, Coric has lost three straight – to Hubert Hurkacz, Diego Schwartzman and Querrey.
• Caroline Wozniacki was one of three former women’s Australian Open champions (2018) in action on Opening Day, along with Serena Williams (2003, 2005, 2007, 2009, 2010, 2015, 2017) and Osaka (2019).
• Serena Williams’ first-round win was her 350th in a major, second among men and women behind Roger Federer.
• According to Tennis Australia, the Opening Day attendance at Melbourne Park was 64,387 (42,243 for the day session and 22,144 for the night session).