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Aussie Rules At The Quarantine Open In Melbourne

Ashleigh Barty of Australia reacts after winning her first Round Women’s singles match against Danka Kovinic of Montenegro on Day 2 of the Australian Open at Melbourne Park in Melbourne, Australia, 09 February 2021. EPA-EFE/DEAN LEWINS

By Alix Ramsay

There seems to be a certain advantage to being an Australian in Australia, particularly an Australian who plays tennis. No one is saying that the Aussies have not had a rough time of it during the pandemic – their lockdown measures were fierce and they went on for months – but the very fact of not having to spend two weeks in quarantine before the first grand slam of the year does appear to have considerable advantages.

As day two of the Open drew to a close, there were two very happy Aussies preparing for the second round and a small gaggle of other nationalities ruing what might have been.

Ash Barty celebrated her return to the courts after almost a year away with a 6-0, 6-0 thumping of Danka Kovinic. The whole affair lasted just 44 minutes with the first set occupying a brief 18 of them. As first days back at work go, this could not have been better. Sure enough, she has inflicted double bagels on her rivals before, but this one felt different.

“I think the processes and the things we go through before a match and trying to execute that, that’s always a challenge,” she said. “I felt like tonight I had that spot on, which was really pleasing, to be able to roll with the momentum throughout the whole match was really good.

“I wanted to go out there and almost take the sting, take the pepper out of the match a little bit and get it on my terms as much as possible right from the get-go and make it feel like she had a real mountain to climb. I think that was probably the most pleasing overall is that right from the start I set the tone and was able to run away with it.”

Barty, of course, has experience of coming back from long lay-offs. She took the best part of two years off after the US Open of 2014 and tried her hand at cricket (she played in the Women’s Big Bash for Brisbane Heat). She tiptoed back for the grass court season in 2016 but once Wimbledon was over, she was not seen again until November – and then it was for one week only. Yet three summers later, she was the French Open champion and the world No.1. Barty, then, knows how to come back with a bang.

Enjoying the atmosphere of a night session in the Rod Laver Arena, she was back in her element and now has an appointment with Dasha Gavrilova to look forward to.

Daria Gavrilova of Australia points to a bracelet she made after winning her first Round Women’s singles match against Sara Sorribes Tormo of Spain on Day 2 of the Australian Open at Melbourne Park in Melbourne, Australia, 09 February 2021. EPA-EFE/DAVE HUNT

“Dasha and I, we’ve been Fed Cup teammates for a long time now,” Barty said. “We know each other well. We spend a lot of time together. So it will be a challenge. I’ll enjoy it. You know, I always enjoy testing myself against other Aussies. If she does get through, it will be a ripper.”

Thanasi Kokkinakis’s next match should be a ripper, too: he plays Stefanos Tsitsipas – an Aussie Greek playing a Greek Greek in Melbourne, a city with one of the largest ex-pat Greek communities in the world. That’s what the term “ripper” was invented for.

Kokkinakis played his first Australian Open in 2013 – and lost to Steve Johnson. But when he came back the following year and reached the second round, he was hailed as a national hero in waiting. He lost that second match to Rafa Nadal (many men have suffered that fate) but the fact that he was a fresh young talent with a big game and a tactical brain gave the home crowd something to cheer. A year younger than Nick Kyrgios, Kokkinakis was going to be part of a brave new future for Australian tennis.

But since then, everything that could go wrong has gone wrong for the 24-year-old. He has fought his way through shoulder surgery and its lingering after effects, pectoral and abdominal injuries, another round of shoulder issues and then, finally, when he thought life couldn’t get any worse, he came down with glandular fever at the end of 2019.

Now, though, he is feeling fit and well and he is back on court – he just hopes it is going to last. He was in tears in the final minutes of his 6-4, 6-1, 6-1 win over Kwon Soonwoo; after years of frustration and disappointment, this was the reward he had been working and waiting for.

Thanasi Kokkinakis of Australia reacts during his first Round Men’s singles match against Soonwoo Kwon of South Korea on Day 2 of the Australian Open at Melbourne Park in Melbourne, Australia, 09 February 2021. EPA-EFE/DAVE HUNT

“At 5-Love, obviously I didn’t want to think about the finish line but I thought about it from the first set,” he said. “I was like,’ That’s all right, just get the next one’. I got the next one, I was like, ‘Still got one more’. So at 5-Love, I felt this massive roar and massive cheer from the crowd. I started tearing up, it was a bit of a soft moment.

Yeah, it was just so much stuff behind the scenes to get back to that point. Not a lot of people realise apart from my team and friends and family. Yeah, definitely got a bit emotional.”

The thought of playing Tsitsipas, the 6-1, 6-2, 6-1 winner over Gilles Simon, is more than he could have hoped for. With every chance that it will a TV special on a huge court with a raucous night-session crowd, he can hardly wait.

“It’s going to be exciting,” he said, stating the blindingly obvious. “It’s just going to be fun. We practiced a few years ago in the past. I kind of know his family. I’ve had some meals in Nice or Monaco with his family. Just obviously both being Greek, we get along.

“Yeah, it’s going to be exciting. He’s obviously been able to stay healthy the last few years. And I kind of saw him when he was 60, 70 in the world and obviously knew he was going to be a great player then.

“So yeah, I just can’t wait to get out there. I’m not sure what court we’ll play on, I’m sure it will be a pretty big one. I’m hoping there is a decent crowd and can get rowdy, have some Greek fans, Aussie fans, and, yeah, hopefully it’s pretty loose.”

There will be no night sessions for Victoria Azarenka this year in Melbourne – she lost her opening match to Jessica Pegula 7-5, 6-4 and much as she was not wishing to make any excuses, 14 days of hard quarantine did not help her preparations. She played – and won – one match in the Grampians Trophy last week but then pulled out because she did not feel physically ready for another tough match. Then, on Tuesday against her American opponent, she seemed to be having breathing problems in the second set but she did not want to discuss the matter. All in all, she just wasn’t ready for a grand slam.

Victoria Azarenka of Belarus reacts during a break in action against Jessica Pegula of the USA during their first round women’s singles match of the Australian Open tennis tournament at Melbourne Park in Melbourne, Australia, 09 February 2021. EPA-EFE/DAVE HUNT

“The most creative way possible [to prepare in hard quarantine] is hitting against the wall and soft cushions. Doesn’t work,” she said. “I think the biggest impact for me personally has been not being able to have fresh air. That really took a toll. It really took a toll for me to adjust.

“At the same time, I don’t know how to prepare after two weeks quarantine; I don’t have a blueprint of how to prepare. So it’s all about, like, trying to figure it out.

I did not figure it out, not this time.

“Of course, it has impacted. Somebody who’s coming out of hard quarantine and maybe has been able to adjust well, they’ll go, Oh, maybe it hasn’t impacted. Somebody who lost early will say, Yeah, of course, it’s impacted. It would be hard to say, Was that the best preparation for me? No.

“But try to sit here and find an excuse because of quarantine and this is just something that, as I said, it is what it is. I am disappointed that I wasn’t able to perform that I knew I could. That’s a bit hard to accept today because I knew I can play better, a lot better. At the same time, I feel that I’ve tried everything I can to be able to be prepared, but unfortunately that hasn’t worked out for me.”

Johanna Konta, the No.13 seed, had prepared and she did think she was ready to give the Open a run. Or she did until she pulled an abdominal muscle in her second service game as she played Kaja Juvan. Trying to work with the injury, she did what she could as the pain became worse and worse but then, trailing 6-4, 2-0, she threw in the towel. She was one of four women’s seeds to fall at the first hurdle on Tuesday.

At least Rafa Nadal and his dodgy managed to come through their first round – he beat Laslo Djere 6-3, 6-4, 6-1. His back is still bothering him but he is hoping against hope that the longer he can stay in the draw, the more chance there will be for it to get better.

“Today it’s not great,” he said. “I needed to change a little bit the motion of my serve. That’s what I tried to survive that condition today. Tomorrow a day off. After tomorrow, another match. I need to go day-to-day and just try to stay positive.”