Venus Williams says she had to experience a world without tennis crowds to fully appreciate what she was missing, and perhaps the reverse will also be true.
Despite their remarkable longevity, the end is achingly near for Venus, at 40, and her 39-year-old sister Serena. Applaud two phenomenal careers while you still can.
On a day where, more than 15,000km away, 43-year-old NFL legend Tom Brady was earning a seventh Super Bowl ring and first with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, both Williams were logging impressive new seniors milestones of their own.
As fans returned to the stands in small but welcome numbers, and line judges joined the ranks of the unemployed, Venus – the five-time Wimbledon and dual US Open champion whose ranking has dipped to No. 81 – beat Kirsten Flipkens 7-5, 6-2, to become the fifth oldest woman to win a grand slam singles match. She had lost in the first round of seven of her past nine.
World No.11 Serena then shrugged off concerns over a shoulder injury by dominating Laura Siegemund 6-1, 6-1 – while making a statement of another kind in a flamboyant one-legged catsuit inspired by the late sprinter Florence Griffith-Joyner.
The first woman to play 100 Australian Open matches now needs another six victories on her 19th visit to claim the record-equalling 24th singles major she so desperately craves.
The current US Open champion, Naomi Osaka, who has some serious star wattage of her own and is the highest-paid sportswoman on the planet, admitted after blitzing Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova that she was inspired by both Williams, although it is Venus with whom she “interacts” more.
“I feel like I do talk about Serena a lot, but Venus is sort of the reason why Serena is where she is,’’ said the third seed, while personally relating to Serena’s little-sister status.
I always love to pay homage to (Venus) … she just has this aura of loving the sport and this infectious energy. I hope that I can learn a lot from her.’’
The sisters still draw strength from each other, yet the fact that both spoke of the benefits of spending two weeks practising together while in quarantining in Adelaide also served to emphasise the inequities inherent in a unique tournament build-up.
Exhibit C: 2016 Australian Open champion Angelique Kerber, the 23rd seed, who lost the first nine games to American Bernarda Pera and the match 6-0, 6-3.
Kerber was one of the unfortunate 72 who, after sharing a flight with a Covid-positive passenger, had to spend a fortnight locked in a hotel room.
“Maybe if I knew that before to stay really two weeks in the hard quarantine without hitting a ball, maybe I would think twice about that,’’ said Kerber, who qualified her comments with praise for Australia’s coronavirus response.
The host nation had a 5-4 result. The winners were Nick Kyrgios (6-4, 6-4, 6-4 over qualifier Frederico Ferreira Silva, to set up a second round against 29th seed Ugo Humbert), Bernard Tomic (whose opponent Yuichi Sugita retired during the third set), Alex Bolt (in four against Slovakian Norbert Gombos), James Duckworth (in three over Damir Dzumhur) and Ajla Tomljanovic (6-2, 6-1 versus Misaki Doi).
John Millman was eliminated in five by emerging Frenchman Corentin Moutet, as was Marc Polmans by Marton Fucsovics. Wildcards Kim Birrell and Lizette Cabrera fell to Canadian Rebecca Marino and second seed Simona Halep respectively.
Big day looms for De Minaur …
Which leaves a larger cast of 14 Australians up on Tuesday, when there will be not just tennis, but Tennys. Sandgren, that is, as the villain of the Covid-dominated lead-up plays Australia’s loveable leading man, Alex de Minaur.
First, there was the American’s bone-headed tweet praising Australian Open tournament director Craig Tiley for helping him board a Melbourne-bound charter flight despite a positive coronavirus test that same week.
Next was the cringeworthy video whinge on social media when players were delayed from leaving hotel quarantine, which even an exasperated Tiley did his best to ignore.
De Minaur, in contrast, is like everyone’s favourite little brother. Cheeky, chirpy, big-hearted, slightly hyper. Tootles around the streets of Alicante in a restored 1973 Mini. Hurtles around the court with such speed and determination that it feels like every match is the most important he has ever played.
Perhaps the edgiest thing about the 21-year-old is the tattoo of his Davis Cup number (109) on his chest. The most dubious is the rather pitiful moustache he sometimes grows for luck.
De Minaur had none of the latter this time last year, having been devastated to miss the Open with an abdominal tear, but opened 2021 by winning the ATP 250 event in Antalya, Turkey, after an encouraging finish to 2020.
Tuesday’s return match will be his first against Sandgren, the world No.50 best known (at least on the court) for failing to convert any of his seven match points against Roger Federer in last year’s quarter-final at Melbourne Park.
“It was a very tough time last year, having to come out here and say that I was pulling out of my home slam,’’ de Minaur said.
I’m very happy to be back here. Feeling great, happy, in great shape. I’m really looking forward to coming out and playing my best tennis in front of my home fans.’’
While de Minaur lost both his ATP Cup matches, top seed Ash Barty has already found an enviable groove, and heads what is the softer half of the women’s draw.
The Queenslander should have few problems with 82th-ranked Danka Kovinic of Montenegro and thus book her place in a potential all-Aussie second round against Daria Gavrilova, who must first get past Sara Sorribes Tormo of Spain.
There will be considerable local interest, too, in the late night meeting of 36-year-old Sam Stosur and 20-year-old Destanee Aiava. Stosur is low on confidence, and has rarely performed at her best in Melbourne.
Still, encouragement is nearby. Stosur needs to look no further than across the locker-room, to a couple of Williams sisters showing others of a certain age what can still be done.
Australians in action on Tuesday (prefix denotes seeding):
Women’s singles, first round
1-Ash Barty v Danka Kovinic (MNE)
(WC) Samantha Stosur v (WC) Destanee Aiava
(WC)Daria Gavrilova v Sara Sorribes Tormo (ESP)
(WC) Astra Sharma v Nao Hibino (JPN)
(WC) Maddison Inglis v 4-Sofia Kenin (USA)
(WC) Arina Rodionova v Madison Brengle (USA)
Men’s singles, first round
21-Alex de Minaur v Tennys Sandgren (USA)
Jordan Thompson v 24-Casper Ruud (NOR)
James Duckworth v Damir Dzumhur (BIH)
(WC) Chris O’Connell v Jan-Lennard Struff (GER)
(WC) Alexei Popyrin v 13-David Goffin (BEL)
(WC) Thanasi Kokkinakis v Sonwoo Kwon (Kor)
(WC) Aleksandar Vukic v 19-Karen Khachanov (RUS)
(WC) Li Tu v Feliciano Lopez (ESP)