Back then, the draw comprised 64 players, and was packed with home talent in the golden age of Australian tennis, names whose records still resonate today.
Along with Laver there was Ken Rosewall—currently the oldest Major champion unless Roger Federer wins next week. There was Roy Emerson, the joint record-holder in Australia with six titles: Federer or Novak Djokovic could overtake him should one of them win a seventh next week.
John Newcombe was there too, as was the last man to win Australia’s men’s title, Mark Edmondson—way back in 1976. For things moved on apace during the Open era, helped by easier and faster international travel, and heralded long winning stints from Sweden, the USA and, exclusively for the last 13 or so years, western Europe.
This year, however, there has been something for the home crowds to shout about. The men’s draw boasted no fewer than 12 Aussies—the most since 2001—plus 10 in the women’s draw. What is more, each draw had a seed among their number.
It so happened, though, that half of the Aussie men fell in the bottom quarter, and three were aligned to meet 2009 champion and 17-time Major winner, Nadal, in quick succession.
Not that Nadal’s form was taken for granted. After all, the great Spaniard had not played a tour match since retiring injured in the semis of the US Open as he once again nursed a knee problem, then an abdominal strain, and decided to have minor ankle surgery last November. He did not play his second scheduled match at the exhibition tournament in Abu Dhabi, nor in Brisbane due to a thigh strain.
So he arrived in Melbourne with little competitive tennis in his legs, yet the world No2 is never underestimated. He had used his off season and rehab months wisely, returning with a re-grooved, flatter, faster serve—another of the old guard aiming to protect their place at the top by building some improvements into the formula that had helped him stay so competitive for around 15 years.
His first brush with Australian competition was James Duckworth in the first round, and it was a good test in the heat of the day to get Nadal up to scratch. Two and a quarter hours, and Nadal notched up 38 winners to just 11 unforced errors, 6-4, 6-3, 7-5.
Then came Matthew Ebden, who reached a career-high 39 late last season, and with a game suited to the faster hard courts of home. The Rod Laver Arena was packed, but Nadal threw down the gauntlet immediately be electing to demo his new serve.
And it was an intimidating start—as if the Spaniard’s sleeveless shirt and ever-intense body-language were not intimidating enough. Though it was, in fact, the Spaniard’s forehand that intimidated most in the first game, with two contrasting but equally impressive winners.
Ebden’s serve made an equal statement, though, with a couple of aces and a love hold, and he got the first sniff of a chance in the seventh game with some attacking tactics, first pulling off a forehand pass worthy of Nadal himself, deuce, and then a cross-court forehand. All at once, Ebden had a break chance, and went for it with a net rush, only to miscalculate the volley.
It was a blazing start for the Aussie, who constantly tried to turn energetic defence into attack, but with Nadal at 4-3, they had played an exhausting half hour already, and sure enough, Nadal sensed his moment courtesy of two nervy double faults from Ebden to break. The energy drained from the Rod Laver Arena, and Nadal stepped up to serve for the set: It took him a matter of moments, 6-3.
It also seemed to take the wind out of Ebden’s sails after such a competitive, high-quality first set, and Nadal got a quick break in the second as he began to master the Aussie’s strategy and pace.
Ebden’s error rate rose from nine in the first set to 21 by the time Nadal broke for a second time, 5-2, in the second. The Spaniard had made just eight errors by the time he sealed the set, 6-2.
Ebden, pressed so hard from inside the baseline by Nadal, had backed off his net-attacking tennis of the first set, and Nadal had taken full advantage. But the Aussie upped it again to hold the first game of the third. His problem was that Nadal was now in perfect rhythm, striking winners down both lines, forehand and backhand, and running down all that was thrown at him. It was soul-destroying for the Aussie, and broke Ebden in third game.
The home man got a look at Nadal’s serve in the fourth game, but two aces from the Spaniard snuffed out the chance, 3-1. Then the Australian faced two more break points, and some great defence around the net thrilled the home supporters and finally drew an error from Nadal—and another, as the Spaniard netted a regular forehand. An ace, and Ebden had held, and the Rod Laver arena loved it.
Yet it would be to no avail, as Nadal even rode a wave of beer-fuelled jokes to pull off some remarkable defence—turning drop-shots into winning lobs—and broke again for 5-2. A seventh ace brought up set point, but although Ebden went for broke to earn a break point, Nadal would not be denied and, in familiar style, dealt the final blow with a forehand winner, 6-2: 33 winners, 15 errors, and faster serving than Ebden across the board.
And so Nadal, in under two hours, cruised to a third Australian opponent, and one that will surely be the most raucously supported of all. He will face the fresh-faced, 19-year-old Alex de Minaur, one of the most exciting young players to emerge in the last year.
Such has the slight, nimble, energetic de Minaur soared that he was named 2018’s ATP Newcomer of the Year, achieving a jump from 208 to a current high of 29, and his first seeding in a Major.
His passion for playing at home converted his first final run in Sydney last year into his first title last week, and he was on court again a day later to beat Pedro Sousa.
His next, which would take him to his third straight Major third round, turned into an epic of almost four hours in five sets against qualifier Henri Laaksonen.
De Minaur looked comfortable in taking the first two sets, 6-4, 6-2, but after an exchange of breaks in the third, the Swiss took it to a tie-break with increasingly aggressive tennis—20 winners in this set alone to five from the Aussie—and edged the set, 7-6(7).
The Swiss tactics paid off again, as he got the deciding break in the fourth, 6-4, but de Minaur raced in to get a quick break at the start of the third set, 2-0. Yet with three and a half hours on the clock, the match was still not done. Laaksonen produced a couple of blistering forehands to keep up the pressure on the teenager, de Minaur resisted through a gruelling 29-shot rally played across every inch of the court, and the Swiss got the break back, deservedly so.
It was proving to be a bold, powerful performance from the Swiss qualifier, ranked 166 in the world and with just one Major match-win to his name—in the first round this week. But the quality and determination of the Aussie teenager proved too much: He won through, 6-3.
Afterwards, he put it simply: “I just didn’t want to lose… You guys got me through that and I can’t thank you enough.”
But if that was tough, it goes up several levels in the third round—against Nadal.
Meanwhile, a third popular Australian, the 38-ranked John Millman, was working through his own five-set thriller on the Melbourne Court, where he took on the man who had already taken five sets to beat Andy Murray: No22 seed Roberto Bautista Agut.
And it would feel like a replay of Monday’s match, against staunch support for his opponent, and then seeing his two-sets-to-love lead clawed back by one of Australia’s most liked players.
Bautista Agut, winner in Doha a fortnight back, led 6-3, 6-1, then dropped the third, 3-6. He could have fallen apart after missing four match points in the fourth set tie-break, 6-7((6), but instead recovered to break through, 6-4.
The quietly-spoken Spaniard admitted afterwards:
“I don’t know [how I stayed calm]. I passed through many difficult moments today. It was really tough to win the fifth set; Johnny is a real fighter, he played really good match… I thought that if I wanted to win the fifth set, I had to stay very concentrated, to fight until the last moment and play point by point. That’s what I tried.”
It was another brave effort from the Spaniard who lost his mother just seven months ago, and then suffered several injuries over the summer. But things get no easier: He next faces the formidable No10 seed, Karen Khachanov, age just 22 and winner of three titles last year—including the Paris Masters.
Other Australian results
Jordan Thompson lost in the second round to Andreas Seppi, 6-3, 6-4, 6-4, but Nick Kyrgios, Thanasi Kokkinakis, Marc Polmans, Bernard Tomic, and Jason Kubler all lost their openers. Alex Bolt and Alexei Popyrin play their second-round matches on Thursday.
In the women’s draw, No15 seed Ashleigh Barty reached the third round with victory over Wang Yafan, 6-2, 6-3, in just 65 minutes, to reach the third round in Australia for the third time. The 22-year-old, playing her attractive all-court game to the delight of the home crowd, won two titles last year, and very nearly sealed the Sydney title a week ago after beating Simona Halep, Elise Mertens and Kiki Bertens to reach the final, but lost to Petra Kvitova in a final-set tiebreak. She next plays another fast-improving all-court player—and friend—Maria Sakkari.
Barty is joined in the third round by wild card Kimberly Birrell, who beat the in-form Donna Vekic to set a meet with former champion Angelique Kerber. However, all four Australian women in the top half of the draw lost: Samantha Stosur, Ajla Tomljanovic, Daria Gavrilova and Destanee Aiava.
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BIOGRAPHY: Ethan Hazard
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