Heading south to Auckland, New Zealand, the WTA event there was hardly faring any better. The top two seeds, Venus Williams and Ana Ivanovic, who also happened to be the last two champions, both lost their opening matches, and by the end of Round 2, just two of the eight seeds remained.
It was a similar story in China, where the Shenzhen draw lost its No2 seed, the world No6 Petra Kvitova, with illness at the first hurdle, and again ended Round 2 with just two seeds left standing.
Even the Hopman Cup on Australia’s baking west coast was not immune: the best player in the world, Serena Williams, could not complete her first match due to a knee injury.
Step up, then, two British women to light up, and liven up, proceedings first in Auckland and then in Perth, with two headline-making performances.
Naomi Broady, ranked 122, had already put paid to former No1 Ivanovic in straight sets to score her first top-20 win. By early next morning, she was trending on Twitter after a lively contest against another higher-ranked player, Jelena Ostapenko. She came back from a set and 5-2 down, and then 5-1 down in the third set, via two match points, in a match punctuated by ill temper and rows.
It was a thriller, certainly, but would soon be eclipsed by a first-time meeting between British No2 Heather Watson, ranked 55, and her friend, Daria Gavrilova, ranked 35.
The 21-year-old Australian, who had already seen 20-year-old team-mate Nick Kyrgios play a storm to beat Andy Murray for the first time, began aggressively, but Watson, whose form during 2015 hit few highs after winning Hobart in the first week, began to look like her old self—quick, tactically smart and energetic. The first set went to a tie-break, though Gavrilova had to fight long and hard at 5-6 to ensure it did. The Aussie then raced to a 6-0 lead and sealed the set, 7-6(2).
Gavrilova also broke in the first game of the second, but her tennis seemed to go flat as Watson continued to run her ragged on the baseline. Their rallies grew in length and intensity, but the stronger Watson levelled for 2-2 and then broke twice more to level the match, 6-2.
This match was far from over. Indeed it was about to rise to a still higher level. Watson broke in the first game, though it took 10 minutes and countless deuces to do so. Then, with two hours on the clock, Gavrilova levelled, 2-2. They even opted to continue play through a dimming of the lights over the 16,000 capacity arena rather than slow the proceedings. The Australian had clearly got a second wind, was chasing down everything, and testing Watson at the extremities of the court.
It earned Gavrilova a break for 5-3, only for Watson to break back, and that was not all. After two hours and 40 minutes of battling tennis, Watson held serve and made a final break for the match, 7-5.
Watson was quick to thank and congratulate the packed stadium: “The atmosphere in here was insane… and I’m exhausted!”
For in this all-or-nothing tournament, in which eight teams play three matches against three fellow teams, the two women now had to recover quickly to play the deciding mixed doubles rubber. At stake was a place in the final and the chance to compete for two diamond-encrusted trophies as well as the Hopman Cup itself.
After such an effort from the two women, all eyes were back on Murray and Kyrgios, but it was Gavrilova who shone in the opening set, as the Aussie pair took a 5-1 lead and served it out, 6-2.
GB took an early break in the second set, and fought off break points for 5-2, only to concede the break in the ninth game, and although Murray pulled off two athletic interceptions to bring up two sets points, Kyrgios was too good: It would go to a tie-break.
Now it was Watson’s turn to shine, as she served and intercepted like a veteran, and the Brits raced to the set, 7-6(0). Now came the final challenge, a Champions Tiebreak to decide the tie.
It would not disappoint as first the home pair, and then the visitors, pulled off great plays. The Aussies dominated for 5-1, the Brits matched them for 5-5, then the Aussies surged again for 9-6, only for the Brits to level at 9-9. The rally of the match was grabbed in exuberant style by net winner from Kyrgios, and he aced for the match, 11-9.
After scoring his singles win over Murray, Kyrgios, never one to hide his light under a bushel, told the 12,000+ in the Perth stadium: “I actually did promise a couple of my friends that the next time I played Andy I’d beat him!”
He went on: “Just played big and backed myself. I’ve put in a lot of work in during the off season, so I guess [my tactics are] more hard work and playing the big points better.” He certainly did that in the doubles, though with not a little help from some inspired shots from Gavrilova.
The last time, indeed the only time, Australia won the Hopman Cup, Kyrgios was three and Gavrilova four years old. No wonder Kyrgios said, at just after midnight: “I think we played pretty good tonight, and if we can win just one more, let’s take this thing home.”
It would be some small compensation for the very different drama that gas unfolded on the other side of this great continent.
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BIOGRAPHY: Anthony Martial