Australian Open 2012: Record six Brits in singles draws in Melbourne

Laura Robson & James Ward join Andy Murray, Elena Baltacha, Anne Keothavong and Heather Watson in the main draw

brits at australian open 2012
Baltacha, Keothavong and Robson Photo: Marianne Bevis

brits at australian open 2012

Laura Robson and James Ward have joined four more Britons in the main singles draws of the Australian Open, the first time that six British players have featured in the first round of an overseas Grand Slam for 20 years””at the 1992 Australian Open.

They join Andy Murray, No4 seed in the men’s competition, and Elena Baltacha (ranked No54), Anne Keothavong (No73) and Heather Watson (No105) and in the women’s draw.

And the good news does not stop there: Six more men will contest the doubles title. Colin Fleming and Ross Hutchins pair as No15 seeds, Jamie Delgado plays with Jonathan Marray, Jamie Murray joins forces with Australian Paul Hanley and Ken Skupski pairs up with Belgian Xavier Malisse.

In the women’s doubles, Keothavong will play with German Mona Barthel and Robson is partnered with Australian Ashleigh Barty.

For Robson, ranked 134, this will be her third straight Grand Slam. As a wild card at last year’s Wimbledon, she beat Angelique Kerber in the first round and thrilled a Centre Court crowd when she took Maria Sharapova to a tie-break in the first set before eventually losing 6-3 in the second. In New York, Robson came through her three qualifying matches and reached the second round where she lost to then No33, Anabel Medina Garrigues.

The first-round draw in Melbourne has not been generous to the tall left-hander who turns 18 next week. Robson, Wimbledon junior champion in 2008, will play the 13th seed from Serbia, Jelena Jankovic in their second meeting: The Serb beat Robson in the first round of Wimbledon in 2010.

If Robson survives, she then has a decent draw””containing two more qualifiers and No24 seed Lucie Safarova””to a possible fourth round encounter with the world No1, Caroline Wozniacki.

But for Robson, who until little more than a month ago was still on crutches nursing a stress fracture, this is already a good run:

“It was on and off when I first heard about my injury whether I would even be able to play here. I’d only been playing points in practice five days prior to my first match so I’m very happy with how I’m playing.”

After she turns 18, Robson can begin to play a full-time WTA schedule and hopes that will enable her to qualify for the Olympics: “I think that’s the top 70, but to be able to break into the top 100, obviously that would be good for me.”

For Ward, currently 161 in the world, this is his first time in a Grand Slam main draw outside the UK and his first on merit rather than as a wild card, which was his route into Wimbledon in 2009 and 2011.

Ward finds himself in the opposite half of the draw from Murray but with the possibility that he could meet Roger Federer or Rafael Nadal in his first match. Instead, he has a very real chance of making it to his first second-round in a Slam via world No104, Blaz Kavcic. If he succeeds, however, things look rather more daunting: the 6ft 6in frame of world No11, Juan Martin del Potro.

Watson qualifies for a Grand Slam main draw by right for the second time, having broken the top 100 after she qualified for the French Open last year. In New York, where Watson was junior champion in 2009, she suffered the same fate as Robson at Wimbledon””facing Sharapova in the first round on Flushing Meadows’ huge centre court.

It drew out her best performance to date and she led by a set and a break before Sharapova pulled out a 7-5 second set and took the match 6-3 in the third.

But if Watson had her work cut out against then No4 Sharapova in New York, she faces a still harder match in Melbourne, where she is drawn against Victoria Azarenka. The impressive world No3 has just won the high-profile Sydney title, beating Jankovic, Marion Bartoli, Agnieszka Radwanska and Na Li on the way. The Belarusian is one of the main contenders for the Australian title, a formidable striker or the ball and tactically astute. She poses a very big challenge indeed for Watson.

As chance would have it, Keothavong is in the same segment as Watson but has a rather more benign route to what, in an ideal world, wouild see the two British women meet in the third round.

Since qualifying for the Australian Open last year””she reached the second round””Keothavong has made the cut for the main draw for each Grand Slam and has steadily climbed to her highest ranking since 2008. In one of those peculiar quirks of fate, though, she finds herself drawn first against her doubles partner, Barthel, who is hot off her first WTA title this weekend in Hobart, a win that took her from 67 to 44 in the rankings.

With Baltacha in the same quartet as Kim Clijsters, it’s not great news for the top-ranked British woman, either. But Australia has produced some of her best results””twice the third round””and she begins her campaign this year having reached the second round of every Grand Slam in 2011.

The upbeat Baltacha is the face of the BBC blog from Melbourne and has already described this tournament as “definitely my favourite Grand Slam of the season”, talking of the warm climate and the enthusiasm and knowledge of the crowd but also that it “represents a new start to a lot of players, and I definitely feel like that.”

Along with Baltacha, then, there is plenty for British fans to relish as play gets under way in the 350 sunshine of the Grand Slam of Asia Pacific.

The top half of the women’s draw and the bottom of the men’s are first to be played, so five of the six singles British contestants are in action on day one:

– Watson and Azarenka open proceedings on Rod Laver;
– Robson and Jankovic are fourth on Margaret Court;
– Ward and Kavcic are first on Court 11, with Baltacha versus Stephanie Foretz Gacon scheduled third and Keothavong versus Barthel up fourth.
– Andy Murray opens his campaign against Ryan Harrison on Tuesday.

Check out the preview of his chances in the men’s draw.

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