Australian Open 2020: British singles hopes end in Round 2 as Dart and Watson exit
Dart impresses vs No4 Simona Halep; Joe Salisbury one of three doubles Brits to advance
It was a blow to British hopes when former world No1 Andy Murray withdrew from this year’s Australian Open.
Melbourne has been the scene of many emotional moments for Murray, where he has been runner-up five times, and not least during a tearful exit last year for what many believed may be the last time.
Despite major hip surgery, and a thrilling return to competition to claim the Queen’s doubles title and Antwerp singles title, Murray sustained another injury setback during the Davis Cup, and has been unable to play competitively since.
But Australia has been a happy hunting ground for other Britons in this year’s draw.
Kyle Edmund reached his only Major semi-final in Melbourne in 2018 and headed to No14 in the rankings. Johanna Konta also made her first Major semi n 2016, followed by the quarters the following year. Heather Watson reached the third round in 2013, something she has only managed at Wimbledon before or since. Dan Evans reached his only Major fourth round in Australia in 2017, and Katie Boulter matched her Wimbledon second round in 2018 with the same in Melbourne last year.
So could any of them make runs to the end of the first week in 2020?
The best chance appeared to be Konta, seeded 12, and although without much competitive preparation after carrying a knee injury since last September, she arrived here off the back of one of her best Major seasons: a semi-final at Roland Garros, followed by quarters at Wimbledon and the US Open.
However, she lost her opener to world No78 Ons Jabeur, 6-4, 6-2. Although not obviously hampered by her knee, that lack of match-play showed in a rusty performance against the variety of the Tunisian player.
So what about Evans, seeded at a Major for the first time at No30 and that after rising from 192 at last year’s Australian Open?
Back on the tour following a ban, he was playing with renewed focus, fitness and determination, and was instrumental in helping Team GB to the ATP Cup quarter-finals this month, where he produced impressive wins over David Goffin and Alex de Minaur.
From there he headed to Adelaide, and a quarter-final run, but in Melbourne, things became increasingly tough. That he was drawn to meet defending champion Novak Djokovic in the third round did not bode well, but his first problem came in his opener against Mackenzie McDonald. He won, but he had to fight back from two sets down to do so. Which, after two other tournaments, took its toll, and he lost to 71-ranked Yoshihito Nishioka, 6-4, 6-3, 6-4, in the second round.
For Nishioka, age 24, it marks his first time in the third round of a Major, but also the dubious honour of playing the seven-time champion Djokovic.
In the men’s draw, then, Evans’ loss marked the exit of the last British man. For both Edmund and Cameron Norrie lost their opening matches.
Edmund had struggled with knee injury in 2019, bringing a slide from No14 this time last year to a current 65, and despite signs of a return to form at the end of 2019, he had lost his opening matches 14 times through the year. Little wonder, perhaps, that he could not get past his tricky opener against 24th seed Dusan Lajovic: 7-6, 6-3, 7-6.
For his part, Norrie, ranked 62, lost to Pierre-Hugues Herbert, 7-5, 3-6, 3-6, 7-5, 6-4, after almost four hours.
In the women’s draw, Katie Boulter was playing in Melbourne with a protected ranking of 85 after her own long-standing injury problems. She began her return from back problems on the ITF circuit, and with some success, but the draw in Melbourne did not help her cause: She lost her opener to No5 seed Elina Svitolina, 6-4, 7-5.
That left Watson and the only qualifying Briton to make it through to the main draw, Harriet Dart, to try their luck in the second round.
Watson, ranked 75th, had scored a fine win over Kristyna Pliskova from a set down in her opener, but things were now significantly tougher against No16 seed Elise Mertens, who she beat at the Hobart International last week.
And having waited until Wednesday to play her opening match, Watson’s second came barely 24 hours later, and she afterwards admitted that the physical challenge proved too much: she lost, 6-3, 6-0, in just 56 minutes. Mertens won eight games in a row to seal victory, with Watson managing only eight points in the second set.
Dart, however, made it a closer affair against the former No1 and reigning Wimbledon champion, Simona Halep. The 23-year-old Briton won her first Major match outside Wimbledon to beat Misaki Doi in the first round, in a gutsy comeback from a set down to win in a deciding tie-break.
It earned her one of the most formidable challenges in tennis against one of the fittest women on the tour, the current world No4, Halep. That it came after Dart’s debut main-draw in Melbourne lasts year against Maria Sharapova—a 6-0, 6-0 demolition—made the occasion still more challenging.
But after being broken in the opening game, Dart broke straight back, only to double fault for another break in the third game. From there, the first set and Halep ran away from the Briton with two more breaks, though Dart got her first hold for 2-5, and failed to convert a break chance as Halep served it out, 6-2.
The second set raced by with two swift breaks to Halep, 4-0, but Dart showed great resolve to lift her level, held twice, and broke the Romanian, 4-5. Halep tensed up in the face of this unexpected challenge, and had to fend off break point and three deuces in the last game, but at last converted her fourth match point, 6-4.
And so the British singles campaign came to an end after two rounds of play at Melbourne Park, but in doubles, there is still reason to be optimistic.
· Eleventh seed Joe Salisbury reached Round 2 with partner Rajeev Ram, though it was at the expense of compatriot Evans, playing with Australian John-Patrick Smith, 6-1, 7-6. Evans and Smith were alternates for Norrie and Marton Fucsovics.
· Jonny O’Mara also progressed to the second round with partner Marcelo Arevalo, as did Ken Skupski with Santiago Gonzalez. However, Dom Inglot and Luke Bambridge and their respective partners did not make it through the first round.
· No14 seeds Jamie Murray with Neal Skupski had their opening match postponed until Friday after delays to power-wash the courts following a dust and rain storm on Wednesday. They face a tough opener against Vasek Pospisil with Hubert Hurkacz.