Australian Open 2012: British come tumbling Down Under
Heather Watson, Laura Robson, Elena Baltacha, Anne Keothavong and James Ward all suffer first-round defeats
On a record day for British participation in Grand Slam competition, four women and one man took to court at Melbourne Park in the opening session of the 100th edition of the Australian Open. It was hot, it was breezy and it was all a bit too much for each one of them.
Heather Watson had the dubious pleasure of generating the early Twitter headlines as hers became the first exit from the tournament.
In truth, it was always going to be a big ask to beat one of the form players on the women’s tour, No3 Victoria Azarenka, but with memories of Watson’s spirited battle against Maria Sharapova in the US Open, in which she took the opening set, there were perhaps higher hopes than the one single game she managed to win.
It was the first game of the match, her opening serve, and she had a break point in the second, but eventually conceded 11 straight games, 6-1 6-0, in little more than an hour.
If nothing else, the match flagged up what a strong a contender Azarenka is to reach her first Grand Slam final. Despite a below-par serving performance””including five double faults””she found a wonderful rhythm off the blue Rod Laver court, hitting cleanly and with simple, effective tactics to each corner. She may not hit with quite the power of a Serena Williams or a Petra Kvitova, but she has variety, accuracy and, an area of considerable improvement, clear-eyed focus.
Laura Robson fared little better than Watson against No13 seed, Jelena Jankovic. She dropped her first service game and failed to convert three chances to break back. With the first set lost 6-2, her confidence, and with it her game, fell apart and the experienced Serb finished off the match with a 29-minute 6-0 set.
Robson, who turns 18 at the end of the week, will return to the practice courts””and later this week to doubles competition with Australian Ashleigh Barty””in the comforting knowledge that the stress fracture that had kept her out of competition until the end of November has withstood the rigours of three qualifying rounds and more than an hour against one of the nimblest women on the tour.
While the British fans had little realistic expectation of round-two action from Watson and Robson, there was rather more hope of advancement from the top female Brit, Elena Baltacha, playing a woman ranked 53 places lower than her own No54. But she started slowly against Stephanie Foretz, falling to 4-0 in the first set, losing it 6-2 in half an hour.
Baltacha held her own in the second set””though she managed just one outright winner in the match””but the Frenchwoman broke through at 4-4 and took the match 6-4. Her reward is a second-round contest against Kim Clijsters.
It was a similar story for qualifier James Ward””playing his first Grand Slam main draw on merit rather than by wild card””against Blaz Kavcic. In little more than two hours, Ward suffered a pretty routine 6-4, 6-3, 6-4 defeat. However, Kavcic’s reward has the same tarnished look as Foretz’s: he next plays Juan Martin del Potro.
The final Briton the day, Anne Keothavong, was the last of the quartet to play but with the news that she had been up most of the night with a stomach virus, it was perhaps a wonder that she made it onto court at all. Her stay was short: 21 minutes and down 6-0 in the first set, she called it a day.
Not for the first time, then, all British eyes turn to Andy Murray for an upbeat storyline in Australia, though there is still plenty of interest in the men’s doubles in the shape of No15 seeds Colin Fleming and Ross Hutchins, together with Jamie Delgado, Jonathan Marray, Jamie Murray and Ken Skupski. Keothavong is scheduled to play in the women’s doubles draw””dependent, of course, upon her health.
Amongst the women’s seeds on day one there were just three losers, none of them major surprises: Flavia Pennetta has been carrying a back injury, while Lucie Safarova and Yanina Wickmayer are both inconsistent in producing their best tennis.
Amongst the men, there were some long and gripping contests that saw a handful of seeds fall. Fernando Verdasco, as anticipated, had his work cut out against the fast-rising Australian teenager, Bernard Tomic who fought back from two sets down to beat the No22 seed in more than four hours.
The home favourite therefore remains on course to meet the equally exciting Alexandr Dolgopolov in the third round. The Ukrainian No13 seed battled back from a two-set deficit to beat another Australian, Greg Jones.
Both Tomic and Dolgopolov are in the same section as Roger Federer and in the same quarter as del Potro, who recovered from a set down to beat Adrian Mannarino. Another seed at the top of this quarter, No25 Juan Monaco, was beaten in five sets by the ever-classy tennis of No 41, Philipp Kohlschreiber. No28 seed, veteran Ivan Ljubicic, faced 27 aces from Lukas Lacko before also losing in five sets, and No31 Jurgen Melzer could not withstand the serving of Ivo Karlovic: he lost in three sets.