It was headlined, of course, by the defending champion—indeed three-time defending champion—Novak Djokovic, embarking on what could become an Open era record of four in a row. It started well for the No2 seed, as everyone anticipated it would: a 22nd straight win in Australia and a 24th consecutive win since losing the US Open final.
Djokovic was not alone in his success. In a rare first day for a Grand Slam, not a single man among the 16 seeds was beaten, though one, Tommy Haas, retired with injury.
But it was day two of this hot and happy Slam that had both local and far-flung fans salivating in a schedule that shone even by Australian Open standards—helped not a little by a draw that threw a swathe of favourites into the same half.
The temperature, as if to make the point, rose by the hour—34C before play even began at 11am and soaring to 43—so hot that the trams into Melbourne city were cancelled due to buckled lines. Yet the roofs stayed open, the players donned ice collars, and the tennis continued. In the case of Gilles Simon and Daniel Brands, indeed, it continued for hours, through 461 points and a 16-14 fifth set in Simon’s favour.
Defending women’s champion Victoria Azarenka, winning in straight sets, was safely off by lunchtime, leaving the Rod Laver Arena to sit back, slap on the sunblock, and roll up its sleeves for a block-buster featuring Roger Federer, Lleyton Hewitt and Rafael Nadal.
First up was Mr Record-Breaker and Fans Favourites, Federer, who had filled this arena once already for a spell-binding charity match against Jo-Wilfried Tsonga. He had returned to take part in Kids Day—and gamely took on a Federer-tall racket in the process. Then he had been back, this time in his role as President of the ATP Players Council, for a ceremony in memory of Brad Drewett. But this was the moment Australia had been waiting for, the competitive Federer, brandishing a new racket, a new coach and fresh ambitions.
With the first ball, the 32-year-old immediately set another record: 57 consecutive Grand Slams—more than 300 matches—in a run that began here 14 years ago.
He played an Australian wild card, the big-hitting, intense 21-year-old James Duckworth, ranked 133. Federer was determined, it seemed, not to spend longer than necessary in the swoon-inducing heat. He raced to the net 22 times to claim 18 points, committing only 17 errors to 30 winners, and moved on to round two, 6-4, 6-4, 6-2. Unusually, he did not even stop to sign: It was way too hot even for cool, white-clad Swiss.
And anyway, the crowd was keen to see their Aussie hero, no less determined to win a tennis match than when he made his first appearance at his home tournament aged 15. Hewitt was about to play his 18th consecutive Australian Open at the age of 32, despite being dogged over the years with injury and surgery. Only last week, he beat Federer to take the Brisbane title, so although he now took on the No24 seed, Andreas Seppi, hopes were high of a classic Hewitt performance. And that is just what he gave.
In the heat of the afternoon, the gritty Australian battled hard to stay with the crisp, all-court game and strong serving of the calm, German-speaking Italian, but he came out on the wrong side of the first two sets: Seppi led 7-6, 6-3.
And when Hewitt was broken in the opening game of the third set, even the most committed Aussie fan must have begun to doubt. Yet this was Hewitt, the man for whom the term ‘never-say-die’ was coined. Sure enough, he broke straight back, and took the 48-minute set, 7-5. He had dropped not a point in 20 first serves.
When he was broken in the first game of the fourth set, there was perhaps more optimism that Hewitt was not done, and of course, he broke straight back, this time taking almost an hour to claim the set, 7-5.
Perhaps a little more drama was needed, and Hewitt was ready to provide it. Yet again, he was broken in the opening game, but this time, Seppi withstood the pressure admirably to take a 2-0 lead.
The Italian was proving to be a formidable opponent, not just physically—though he had more spring in his step than Hewitt—but also mentally. He was, though, unable to convert a break chance in the next game, as Hewitt delivered the latest in a remarkable tally of 23 aces.
The court was now in shade as the sun angled into the eyes of the Aussie army, but the temperature was still up at 40C. By now, there was a scattering of empty seats, suggesting it had all become too much for some of the faithful, yet the quality of the tennis blossomed with a mix of probing angled rallies, a lob here, a high backhand volley there, and winning forehands down the line.
Four hours in, and it was time for another twist—a timely break-back from Hewitt with a bullet of a return of serve. He then fought off a break point to lead for the first time in the match.
It looked like the fairy-tale ending, too, as Hewitt battered three winners to earn a match point on Seppi’s serve, but the fortitude of the Italian paid off: He aced and held. And in the blink of an eye, as the set moved into a second hour, he too got a break chance—and took it. He served out in style, 7-5, permitting himself at last a show of raw emotion.
The Italian would soon find out that his next opponent was Donald Young via a retirement from Robin Haase. Unfortunately, another retirement soon marred what promised to provide more Australian thrills.
The evening session was launched by the burnished and bristling presence of the top man himself, Nadal, who faced yet another Australian, the 21-year-old Bernard Tomic—a finalist in Sydney last week, a former No27, a former quarter-finalist at Wimbledon, and a man who had never fallen in the first round in Melbourne.
It was a highly anticipated contest, but Tomic strained a groin in his very first service game, took treatment, donned bandages, discarded them, and played on in the hope that anti-inflammatories would do the trick.
He stayed with Nadal courtesy of some big serving and 13 winners, but Nadal broke to serve out the set, 6-4, and Tomic shook hands and retired.
In such demanding conditions, Nadal may be grateful for the short match, especially as all the seeds in his quarter played full-length matches to reach Round 2.
There was better news for Australian fans from among their rising ranks: 17-year-old Thanasi Kokkinakis beat Igor Sijsling—but meets Nadal in round two! And 18-year-old Nick Kyrgios, last year’s boys’ champion playing in his first men’s main draw, beat Benjamin Becker, and will next play Benoit Paire. However Marinko Matosevic lost out in five sets to Kei Nishikori.
MORE: The latest football news
MORE: The latest tennis news