Thursday may only have seen the completion of the second round, but the scheduled 32 seeds in each draw have already been drastically reduced.
On the women’s side, just 15 of the 32 have filled their allotted places, with the latest casualty, the world No3 and Wimbledon champion Garbine Muguruza, following fellow Major champions Sloane Stephens, Petra Kvitova and Venus Williams on the plane home.
She was joined by the only remaining British woman in the draw, No9 seed Johanna Konta, blitzed by some crisp, swift ball-striking courtesy of Bernarda Pera before the sun had even reached its peak.
Not that the blistering 40 degrees held up world, No6 Karolina Pliskova or No17 Madison Keys, nor former Australian champions Maria Sharapova and Angelique Kerber. None dropped more than seven games during Thursday afternoon, and none has yet dropped a set. Keys, indeed, spent just 41 minutes on court, Pliskova only 44 minutes, and even Kerber took just 70 against the dangerous Donna Vekic.
No1 Simona Halep enjoyed a few degrees’ respite in the early evening, and was just as impressive in taking out Eugenie Bouchard in 65 minutes—and alleyed some fears over a twisted ankle during her first match. So Halep maintains her campaign to keep No1, though four others can still catch her by the end of the month.
However, No2 Caroline Wozniacki, No4 Elina Svitolina and No7 Jelena Ostapenko all dropped a set to reach the third round, and Svitolina in particular will have to take on still tougher playing conditions on a Friday afternoon that promises 42 degrees. She is, though, a beneficiary of a decimated quarter where she is the only remaining seed.
Come Saturday, however, all eyes will be on those two champions, Kerber and the unseeded Sharapova who meet at their earliest in a draw since the first of their seven meetings—at this very tournament in 2012. That was a swift affair, 6-1, 6-2 to Sharapova, who was eventually beaten by Victoria Azarenka in the final. However, their last three matches have all gone to three sets, with Kerber the victor in the two most recent.
Since then, too, Kerber has gone on to win two Majors and hold the No1 ranking, and she made a strong start to this season after a relatively poor 2017. As well as going unbeaten in four matches at the Hopman Cup, she beat the likes of Venus Williams, Dominika Cibulkova and Ashleigh Barty to claim the Sydney title.
Sharapova, who won the title in Melbourne a decade ago, has steadily worked up the ranks to a current 48 since returning from her doping ban last April, and she backed up her Tianjin title last October with a run to the semis in Shenzhen to open 2018.
Theirs remains a tough quarter for the survivor, with Agnieszka Radwanska also searching for her old form via two comeback wins from a set down thus far. She could be followed by Keys or Caroline Garcia.
The men’s draw, already missing big names Andy Murray and Kei Nishikori due to injury, was nevertheless boosted by the return of former champions Novak Djokovic and Stan Wawrinka, both playing for the first time since Wimbledon and both with question-marks by their names right up to the last moment.
Ranked at No14 and nine, they were drawn into the same quarter and, as ill fortune would have it, with Nos 4 and 5, Alexander Zverev and Dominic Thiem.
Djokovic looked reassuringly good in his opener, and sent Donald Young packing for the loss of just seven games. He had the added misfortune, though, of drawing Doha champion Gael Monfils in the second round. The Frenchman had just missed out on a seeding and so this promised to be a stern test of Djokovic’s elbow, and especially of his new abbreviated service action—and all the more so because of the punishing temperatures for their afternoon match.
In his favour was a 14-0 winning record and, sure enough, after dropping the first set, 6-4, the Serb’s record extended to 15 as he weathered the conditions the better of the two men, 6-3, 6-1, 6-3.
It marked Djokovic’s 60th match-win in the tournament where he has thrived like no other to claim six titles. But he joined a chorus of voices in talking of the punishing conditions endured in the Melbourne heat-wave.
“The conditions were brutal, that’s for sure. We both struggled… When you’re facing such conditions, obviously it affects you mentally, as well. It was a big challenge for both of us to be on the court, to be able to finish the match.
“I had a nervous start. I wasn’t really comfortable at the beginning. I can’t blame conditions for my double faults. I mean, it’s still a motion that I’m kind of getting used to. Being rusty at the beginning is something that you can also expect. I just have to accept it, embrace it, obviously hope for a better day tomorrow.”
It will be a better day, a non-match day, because temperatures promise to be even higher. Come Saturday, he will play No21 seed Albert Ramos-Vinolas, who took just two hours, 6-4, 6-2, 7-6(2), to beat Tim Smyczek. Djokovic has yet to drop a set to the Spaniard in four meetings.
But Wawrinka, despite his evening start, was a shadow of the man who has thrilled fans with his big-time tennis and glorious jack-hammer of a one-handed backhand. He underwent knee surgeries last summer, and while he has been upbeat about his recovery, his lack of match-play became clear against the 97-ranked Tennys Sandgren. The American won just his second main-draw Major match, 6-2, 6-1, 6-4, in 88 minutes.
Wawrinka’s movement was compromised, his energy levels dropped, and from 2-2 in the opener, Sandgren won nine straight games to go 5-0 lead in the second set. To the Swiss man’s credit, he battled on in the third set after dropping serve in the opening game, and he was afterwards pragmatic about his progress.
“I think the last 12 days were more than I could have dreamed coming here. I really came without thinking I will be able to play the first match. That’s a big step for me. If I look back, I only had surgery five months ago. To be that far already, it’s more than we could have expected. For sure, today was extremely tough to feel that way on the court, to lose that way, even if he was playing well.”
Sandgren will next face Maximilian Marterer, ranked 92, who beat Fernando Verdasco in a punishing five-setter. And he was not the only one to endure a punishing victory.
Thiem was staring at defeat to Denis Kudla after losing the first two sets, 6-7(6), 3-6, but battled back through the heat and 3hrs 48mins to grab the win, 6-3, 6-2, 6-3. He next plays No26 seed Adrian Mannarino, whose steady progress of the last 12 months sees him reach the third round in Melbourne for the first time and a likely new career-high ranking at the end of the month. He beat Jiri Vesely in four sets.
The other seed in this quarter, Zverev, also took four sets to get past Peter Gojowczyk, 6-1, 6-3, 4-6, 6-3, after a wayward couple of games in the third set marred an otherwise assured performance. He next plays the #NextGen Finals champion, Hyeon Chung.
Perhaps the biggest surprise of the day came in the bottom quarter, where one of the tips for the semis, No7 David Goffin, was uncharacteristically error-prone against the veteran Frenchman, Julian Benneteau, who is playing in his last year on the tour. The 36-year-old won, 1-6, 7-6(5), 6-1, 7-6(4), and now plays No25 seed, Fabio Fognini.
Del Potro and Tomas Berdych each toughed out draining four-setters to set a third-round show-down. Karen Khachanov took the third-set tie-break against del Potro without losing a point, but the No12 seed dug deep to fight back, 6-4, 7-6(4), 6-7(0), 6-4 after 3hrs 45mins, in his first Australian Open since 2014. He leads the former semi-finalist Berdych 5-3 in previous matches.
Right at the bottom of the draw, two 30-somethings wielding one-handed backhands, set a 19th meeting between Roger Federer and Richard Gasquet in the Swiss man’s 19 Australian Open appearance.
Federer’s 6-4, 6-4, 7-6(4) win over Jan-Lennard Struff belied a tough match in which the big German pummelled the Swiss in some high-pace, attacking tennis. Each of the first two half-hour sets required just one break by Federer, but the third lasted almost an hour, saw break and counter-break, before the Swiss edged the concluding tie-break.
He or Gasquet will face an unseeded player in Round 4, after Sam Querrey followed Milos Raonic out of the draw.
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BIOGRAPHY: Eric Bailly