Yet top seeds and defending champions were dropping like flies in the Antipodes before the men playing in the Qatar Open in Doha and the Chennai Open in India had barely had time for breakfast.
At the Hopman Cup in Perth, the best woman player in the world, Serena Williams, had already missed her opening tie of the team round-robin event with a knee problem, but was due to play when the USA took on Australia. She did, but retired in the second set, and Australia was awarded a walk-over in the mixed doubles.
Williams remained up-beat: “I’ve been training really hard during the off-season and really pushing myself beyond the limits; I just think a day or two off will make a world of difference.”
Yet this will ring alarm bells, coming so close to the defence of her Australian title, bearing in mind that Williams has not played a tour match since losing the semi-final of the US Open last September.
More shock exits blighted the Brisbane Premier, where two of its biggest names, No1 seed Simona Halep and No3 seed Maria Sharapova, withdrew shortly before their opening matches.
Defending champion Sharapova revealed: “I hurt my forearm in practice a couple of days ago and need to precautionarily withdraw with the Australian Open starting in just a matter of time.”
Halep pulled out with a leg injury, saying: “I had problems with my Achilles in August and September, and now I’ve already had a couple of weeks again with the pain… I think it’s more important to be ready and take a little bit of a break.”
Meanwhile, across the water in New Zealand, two of the three former No1s in the draw fell at the first hurdle, including top seed and defending champion Venus Williams. She lost to Russian teenager Daria Kasatkina, who had never even played a top-10 opponent before let alone beaten one, and she came back from a set down, and 3-1 down in the third, to win 6-7(4), 6-3, 6-3.
Then it was the turn of the second seed and 2014 champion Ana Ivanovic to lose her opener in Auckland. Fortunately for the fan-backed ASB Classic, the No3 seed Caroline Wozniacki fought back from 0-4 down against Danka Kovinic to become the new favourite for the title.
So would the men back in Doha and Chennai fare any better?
Novak Djokovic, yesterday, negotiated the first round of a tournament he has yet to win, at the site of the last event where he failed to reach the final. The Serb lost in the quarter-finals in Doha last year to Ivo Karlovic before reaching 15 consecutive finals.
So how would the 2014 champion Rafael Nadal and the defending champion David Ferrer do? First it was the turn of last year’s losing finalist, No3 seed Tomas Berdych, who faced the single-handed flair of Sergiy Stakhovsky, and it was nip and tuck until 5-5. Having exchanged breaks at the start of the set, Berdych broke once more, 7-5, and ran out the winner, 6-4.
No4 seed Ferrer, though, playing a man, in Illya Marchenko, ranked 94, was under pressure from the very start. The Spaniard made too many uncharacteristic errors, and his serving went from mediocre to poor as the match progressed.
After winning the first set in a gripping tie-break, 7-6(8), most expected the Ukrainian to fade in the face of the super-fit Ferrer, but one break was enough to level the match, 6-3, and as the Spaniard’s first serve plummeted to 31 percent, Marchenko was able to make two breaks to seal the best win of his career, 6-2, his first top-10 victory.
So from winning 19 of his first 20 matches to claim three titles from his first four tournaments last year, Ferrer has lost his very first match of 2016.
Would the No2 seed Nadal avoid the same fate as Ferrer and the same fate as last year, when he made a shock first-round exit to world No127 Michael Berrer—having won the first set 6-1?
He played the hugely talented Spaniard Pablo Carreno Busta, who Nadal afterwards described as one of the hopes for tennis in Spain in the coming years. The 24-year-old looked infinitely superior to his 67 ranking in the hour-long opening set, too. Nadal was playing well but saw winners fire past him on both wings with not a break point in sight. From 6-2 up in the tie-break, the younger man became tight, but eventually closed it out, 7-6(5).
Carreno Busta faced the first break points of the match, at 15-40 in the first game of the second set. He rose to the challenge to reel off four straight points, but did not survive his next service game, and Nadal broke again to level the match, 6-3.
Nadal seemed now to be smothering the younger Spaniard’s tennis, and broke immediately for a 2-0 lead in the third set. Carreno Busta did break back, but his serve was now letting him down—10 points in a row lost on serve—and he was broken twice more. Nadal advanced, 6-1, in what proved a fine test of his form—and the former champion came up trumps.
Nadal next plays Robin Haase, as he continues the pursuit of his first hard-court titles since this very tournament two years ago.
But for every big name that crumbled early in this frantic week, there was another who exceeded expectation—and after British No3 Kyle Edmund did just that in beating Martin Klizan yesterday, the No2 Aljaz Bedene did the same today in Chennai, beating the No7 seed Vasek Pospisil, 7-5, 7-6(6). In fairness, the two are only separated by six places in the rankings, so Bedene’s next match against the 106-ranked 30-year-old Luca Vanni, should be a walk in the park.
But the stand-out British performance of the year so far came from the 122-ranked Naomi Broady, for she it was who played giant-killer against Auckland’s No2 seed Ivanovic. The young woman from Stockport hit 14 aces in beating the 2014 champion, 7-5, 6-4—her first top-20 victory.
Broady next plays Latvian teenager, Jelena Ostapenko, ranked 84.
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