Few could deny the steely grand slam-winning ways of Maria Sharapova during her heyday, but on Rod Laver Arena on Tuesday, she appeared to wilt as Croat Donna Vekic routed the Russian 6-3 6-4.
The former Australian Open champion, who has reached the quarterfinal stage of a major once since returning to the tour from a doping ban three years ago, struggled to keep the ball in court, posting 31 unforced errors to Vekic’s 17.
Sharapova struggled throughout 2019, plagued by a chronic rotator cuff injury that required surgery in February, before calling her season short in August with eight match wins to her name.
Vekic, coming off a career-best season that included a US Open quarterfinal, rushed out to an early 5-1 lead, benefitting from solid returning and Sharapova’s waywardness.
After Sharapova showed glimpses of past brilliance with more accurate aggression off the forehand and some deft net play, the No. 19 seed steadied and closed out the first set.
The Russian rushed out to an early 4-1 lead in the second set off a poor Vekic service game before the Croat mounted her comeback, reeling off four consecutive games to seal the victory.
The result sees the now-world no. 145 Sharapova on a three-match grand slam losing streak — the longest in her career.
But of more concern, the loss will prompt the Russian’s ranking to fall outside the world’s top 350.
Asked whether she would return to Melbourne Park next year, Sharapova was coy to give a definitive answer.
“I don’t know. I was fortunate to get myself to be here and thankfully to Craig and the team allowing me to [receive a wildcard]. It’s tough to say what will happen this time next year,” she said.
Rafa rolls into the second round
Rafael Nadal’s mantra guiding his Open preparations, after an off-season bookended by the demanding Davis Cup and ATP Cup competitions, was “easy does it.”
And that thinking carried over into his first round match against Bolivia’s Hugo Dellien. The Spaniard was in scintillating form as he overcame his opponent 6-3 6-2 6-0.
Showing attacking intent from the first game, Nadal struck 38 winners to Dellien’s 15, and fought off a number of break points as his lower-ranked opponent launched a spirited attack in his second service game.
From there, Nadal never faced another threat on serve, and looked particularly ominous as he turned defence into attack, including a sublime parry early in the third set.
— #AusOpen (@AustralianOpen) January 21, 2020
Speaking to Nine’s Jim Courier post-match, Nadal said his maiden Melbourne outing this decade could not have been more ideal.
“For me, it had been a positive start, what you want in the first round is a win and to do it in straight sets is even better,” Nadal told the adoring Rod Laver Arena crowd.
Millman leads Australian charge
Known for his dogged demeanour, Australian journeyman John Millman did it tough against French up-and-comer Ugo Humbert in an exhausting four-setter on Court 3.
The world no. 48 weathered his opponent’s southpaw game and their tendency to draw out rallies beyond 10 shots to win 7-6(3) 6-3 1-6 7-5.
With chants raining down from the rambunctious home crowd before play commenced, the tone was set from the outset with a 23-shot rally punctuated by Humbert with a mid-court drop shot.
Humbert is looking great against John Millman.
— Wide World of Sports (@wwos) January 20, 2020
Millman, who shocked Roger Federer en route to the 2018 US Open quarterfinals, found early difficulty countering the Frenchman’s forehand, and fell three break points down early.
However, six deuces later, Millman evened the ledger, and soon notched up two of his own break point chances, which went begging.
This was the first one and the second one was even closer#AusOpen
— Lachlan McKirdy (@LMcKirdy7) January 21, 2020
Trading service holds into the tiebreaker, Millman gained ascendancy off a Humbert double fault, and after running the 21-year-old ragged, utilised his opportunity to win the set.
But the 30-year-old Australian found the going easier in the second, after succumbing to an early break. Finding his range and punishing Humbert’s weaker backhand, Millman rallied to recover the deficit to the approval of Davis Cup captain Lleyton Hewitt, before closing it out 6-3.
After a forgettable third set, which saw the Frenchman hit cleaner and more errors off the Millman racquet, the Australian steadied the ship in the fourth, as his opponent received treatment for foot blisters.
In the end, it was a pair of Humbert double faults that gifted Millman the win, and now faces world no. 31 Hubert Hurkacz for the chance at a possible third round match-up with Roger Federer.
First (of many) Grand Slam main draw wins for 18yo Jannik Sinner.
Gets Fucsovics tomorrow. pic.twitter.com/WjOriD8w0F
— José Morgado (@josemorgado) January 21, 2020
Elsewhere, Max Purcell lasted mere minutes upon the resumption of his match with ATP Next Gen Finals winner Jannik Sinner, before falling 7-6(2) 6-2 6-4.
Wildcard Marc Polmans, who suffered a shattering five-set loss in his maiden Australian Open outing last year, ensured history did not repeat itself as he courageously saw off Kazakh veteran Mikhail Kukushkin 6-4 6-3 4-6 6-7(8) 6-4 for his first-ever grand slam victory.
And countryman Jordan Thompson followed moments later, securing his third career Australian Open win with a straight-sets drubbing of Alexander Bublik.
Former British semifinalist exits at first hurdle
No. 12 seed Johanna Konta became the first big name to exit Melbourne Park on second day’s play, going down to the crafty Tunisian Ons Jabeur 6-4 6-2 in just over an hour.
Konta, who made the French Open semi-finals and the Wimbledon and US Open quarters last year, looked rusty off the back of a four-and-a-half month absence from the game, prompted by a knee injury.
And her less-fancied opponent took the initiative, combining a rock-solid serving performance with tricky shotmaking to eke four breaks throughout the match, courtesy of 19 winners.
Speaking post-match, the Brit said her worst-ever result at the first grand slam of the year was “unfortunate.”
“[Consistency] is part of the sport and the way I play and it’s something that’ll come with time and matches. The main thing was to start playing again,” Konta told reporters.
In other women’s first round results, number two seed Karolina Pliskova maintained her undefeated start to the season, stemming a second-set fightback from France’s Kristina Mladenovic to win 6-1 7-5.
Mladenovic, who broke Australian hearts by defeating Ash Barty in a crucial Fed Cup final rubber, threatened to push the match to three sets, before Pliskova’s flat shotmaking off the ground overran the Frenchwoman.
And Ukraine’s Dayana Yastremska could be the woman to bring former champion Caroline Wozniacki’s career to an end, after the 19-year-old dispatched Slovenia’s Kaja Juvan in swift 6-1 6-1 fashion.
The Danish former world no.1 announced her impending retirement in the off-season, declaring she “has accomplished everything” in her career.
It took more than a day’s play but the 2020 instalment of the Australian Open has witnessed its first fifth set tiebreak.
In a match of contrasting styles, flamboyant Italian Fabio Fognini and big-serving American Reilly Opelka went the distance, one year after the controversial ten-point ‘super tiebreak’ was introduced.
And it was the twelfth seeded Fognini, battling back from two sets down, who stamped his authority to secure the match. And boy, was he happy.
He finishes a furious comeback after being down two sets to love to beat Reilly Opelka!pic.twitter.com/vqY1iBeMB5
— PointsBet Sportsbook (@PointsBetUSA) January 21, 2020
The result also completes a unique haul for the Italian, who has now won matches from two-sets-to-love down at each of the grand slam tournaments (for the record, he’s accomplished the feat twice at Wimbledon, and three times at the US Open).
Looking forward – tonight’s must-watch matches
Jennifer Brady (USA) vs Simona Halep  (ROU)
Tonight’s first-up match on Margaret Court Arena sees 2018 Australian Open finalist Halep face red-hot Brady, who dispatched both Maria Sharapova and world no.1 Ash Barty, in the Australian’s first outing in Brisbane.
The Romanian, reeling from a swift exit at the hands of brawny Belarussian Aryna Sabalenka, will need her counter-punching game on song against the American’s trademark power.
Daniil Medvedev  (RUS) v Frances Tiafoe (USA)
In a match pinned by many as the pick of the men’s first round, 23-year-old Medvedev will be endeavouring to kick off his 2020 in similar fashion to his remarkable 2019.
His year included six consecutive finals post-Wimbledon, which culminated in his thrilling five-set loss to Rafael Nadal in the US Open decider.
First up is the American Tiafoe, who celebrated his 22nd birthday on the first day of the championships, and is desperately seeking his own breakout year. Many would remember the American from last year’s quarterfinal run in Melbourne.