The prediction of carnage for Australian players on the opening day of the Australian Open proved to be a case of false pessimism, with Samantha Stosur, Casey Dellacqua and Matthew Ebden all progressing through to the second round in impressive style.
They were almost joined by a curly-headed teenager from Sydney, Jordan Thompson, who sensationally took a two set lead against Polish 20th seed Jerzy Janowicz. The 19-year-old, making his Australian Open debut after winning the men’s wildcard play-off, eventually wilted in five sets.
The most dramatic result was the ousting of world No. 6 Petra Kvitova to 20-year-old Thai Luksika Kumkhum, 6-2, 1-6, 6-4, removing one of the women considered one of Serena Williams’ main dangers.
The sizzling tennis on day one will be matched by the temperature on day two, with a high of 43C forecast for Melbourne.
While politicians and medical experts have been warning Melburnians to keep their fluids up, the tournament’s official doctor said he was unconcerned about the predicted heat and even warned that one of the worst things a tennis player could do was to drink too much.
“The risk to health is relatively low,” said tournament doctor Tim Wood. “We have never had anybody die from dehydration on a tennis court. We have had players almost die from drinking too much. So the danger is over-drinking, not under-drinking and becoming dehydrated.
“We have never had to put a drip in someone who has been so dehydrated that their vital signs, blood pressure and heart rate, have been compromised.”
Championship organisers operate an extreme-heat policy that can result in play being suspended due to high temperature, or for the roof to be closed on the two main stadium courts. That decision is made by tournament referee Wayne McKewen who assesses information from a variety of sources before calling a halt.
But Dr Wood played down concerns players might be disadvantaged, or even harmed, by playing too often in the heat.
“Tennis is relatively low risk for major heat problems compared to, in Melbourne, AFL football, compared to continuous running events,” Dr Wood said. “The actual risk to the health is relatively small compared to other sports.”
He said the total time the ball is in play in a tennis match is small compared with the total time of a match. “Tennis, by and large, is a low-risk sport and that’s why…we can play in these conditions and not be too concerned,” he said.
Bernard Tomic, on the other hand, will escape the worst of the heat, although he will have to contend with a sizzling opponent in world No.1 and 13-time grand slam champion Rafael Nadal in the evening session.
Tomic is clinging to his recent domination of left-handers as a source of hope that he can conjure one of the great Australian Open upsets. Tomic enters the daunting first-round showdown having won seven of his eight clashes with southpaws over the past 18 months.
“I don’t mind playing left handers,” the 21-year-old said ahead of their prime-time clash at Rod Laver Arena.
But there are left-handers and there is Rafael Nadal, who is coming off a 10-title season in 2013 and is desperate to add the Norman Brookes trophy to the French Open and US Open trophies he’s minding at home in Mallorca.
“I’ve got a breakdown of what I need to do,” Tomic said. “His game is very unique and he’s the best at what he does. This is why he’s No. 1 in the world and a great champion. So I need to play my game and just relax.”
But after watching Juan Martin del Potro blow Tomic away in the Sydney International final on Saturday, Australian Davis Cup captain Pat Rafter cautioned the world No.57 against relaxing too much. Rafter said even the slightest lapse in concentration could spell doom for Tomic.
“I expect it will be a great match,” Rafter said. “If you give these guys a sniff, they’ll jump all over you. Bernie in the past has been a little bit up and down in these matches, has these lulls. He can’t afford to have them.”
Of the Australian winners on day one, the most relieved was Stosur. Just three days after suffering a straight-sets hiding from Klara Zakopalova in Hobart, Stosur turned the tables on the dangerous Czech with a hard-fought 6-3 6-4 victory.
Australia’s only seed in this year’s singles events, Stosur rallied from 4-1 down in the second set, overcoming her mental fragility to advance after one hour and 32 minutes.
“It’s a relief,” Stosur said. “I’m very happy to get through the first round. It’s always tough playing the first round of any grand slam.”
The world No.17 said her biggest improvement from Friday’s loss to Zakopalova was her return of serve. “I tried to work myself into the points and not go for winners too early,” Stosur said.
Dellacqua, the darling of the 2008 tournament when she made the round of 16, powered past former world No.2 Vera Zvonareva 6-2, 6-2.
The Perth left-hander has previously endured a full shoulder reconstruction, giving her a special insight into the plight of Zvonareva, who only returned in late December after a 17-month lay-off.
“That first big match or first big tournament coming back, I know how it feels,” said Dellacqua. “I have been there and done that. I wanted to make her play as many balls as I could, to make her feel like she was under a lot of pressure and create a few errors on her side.
“She’s obviously not at the level that she was when she was No.2 in the world but she’s still a quality opponent.”
Ebden survived a mid-match lull to beat Frenchman Nicolas Mahut, thus avoiding a third-straight dramatic Australian Open fadeout.
Ebden’s previous two Open campaigns had ended with him squandering two-set leads. Monday’s clash on showcourt two appeared to be following a similar path when Mahut levelled at two sets apiece.
But the 26-year-old Ebden made the key break in the eighth game of the final set and then held serve to win 6-3 7-5 4-6 0-6 6-3 in a match lasting three hours and four minutes.
Apart from the gallant Thompson, the other Australians bundled out on day one were Jarmila Gajdosova, Sam Groth and Ashleigh Barty.
Gajdosova blew a golden opportunity to break her duck at the Australian Open, losing a seesawing three-setter to German ninth seed Angelique Kerber 6-3 0-6 6-2. She has never won a singles match at the Australian Open in nine attempts.
Her ex-husband Groth didn’t come as close in his 6-4 6-3 6-4 loss to Canadian 28th seed Vasek Pospisil.
Barty lost 6-2, 6-1 to top seed Serena Williams in a night match on centre court.
Williams’ sister Venus, however, was a notable loser. Venus has now suffered three first-round losses from her past six grand slams after falling to Russian 22nd seed Ekaterina Makarova 2-6 6-4 6-4.