Australia’s Ajla Tomljanovic failed to halt the late momentum of Garbine Muguruza, who was fresh off climbing Mount Kilimanjaro two months ago, as the resurgent Spaniard conquered in three tense sets 6-3 3-6 6-3.
Tomljanovic, making her first berth in the second round of the Australian Open in her last five attempts, fought valiantly, going toe-to-toe with the two-time grand slam champion in a ruthless battle of the baseline.
However, Muguruza’s experience hoisting the Roland Garros and Wimbledon trophies proved crucial, securing the last three games of the match following a short rain delay.
“I thought I was in it until the last point was finished, but it didn’t go my way,” Tomljanovic said.
“Being consistently aggressive like I was in the second set, going for more and believing I can do that for two or three sets at a time, not just one set — against a player like Garbine today, those little things make a difference.”
Tomljanovic squandered an early break in the first set to let the former world number one back in and with a sniff, Muguruza pounced, winning six of the last seven games to seal the opener with a pin-point backhand lob.
However the local hope, whose aggressive game proved erratic early on and yielded 14 unforced errors to only six winners, tidied up her act in the second set, especially off her more formidable backhand.
Heading into the third set, Muguruza briefly claimed the advantage with a break, before Tomljanovic stormed back, using her trusty backhand three times in succession to recover the deficit.
Serving 4-3 15-30 down, sprinkles of rain prompted the Rod Laver Arena roof to close, briefly halting Muguruza’s forward march as she found more consistency on serve.
— #AusOpen (@AustralianOpen) January 23, 2020
But it was not enough to quell the Spanish armada as Tomljanovic was immediately broken, and despite saving two match points, Muguruza served it out after two hours and 21 minutes.
“It was a tough battle. We both fought to the end, Ajla played very well so I had to play my best in order to win the match,” Muguruza told the Rod Laver Arena faithful post-match.
“Ajla is a very aggressive player as well, I had to stay aggressive and play my game, I knew she was going to hit very good shots so I just had to stay patient.”
Muguruza will face either world no. 5 Elina Svitolina or Lauren Davis for a spot in the second week.
Fellow Australian Priscilla Hon is currently a set down on against former champion Angelique Kerber on Margaret Court Arena, after Hon relinquished an early break to the German.
And Alex Bolt is locked in a tense third set against French Open finalist Dominic Thiem, with the pair splitting the first two sets.
‘Unreal’ Barty shows true class after doubles win
While winning plenty of supporters for her crafty all-court game, Ash Barty’s easygoing attitude off makes her even more endearing to Australian audiences.
And it was on show following her first round doubles victory alongside Germany’s Julia Goerges.
After defeating Australian duo Astra Sharma and Jessica Moore 6-2 6-3, the world number one beckoned Moore, who’s set to retire following the Open, to take the microphone for a post-match interview.
Kind words from @ashbarty for a dear friend. 🇦🇺🤗
— #AusOpen (@AustralianOpen) January 23, 2020
Moore, beaming from ear to ear, took special liberty to praise Barty, her one-time partner as she returned to the sport in 2016.
“She’s an unreal chick and it’s unbelievable to have someone like her for us to look up to,” Moore said.
“I don’t want to steal the win from these guys, but this was my first court I played on twelve years ago, so it was cool to be on court with a number one and two unbelievable athletes — I’m really grateful there was such a great crowd.”
Outstanding stuff. Barty next faces the in-form Kazakh Elena Rybakina, fresh off winning the Hobart International, for a fourth round berth.
Daniil Medvedev smells blood
For those unfamiliar with Russian Daniil Medvedev — though you may be few and far between — his playing style is the human embodiment of an alphabet soup: always unpredictable, but consistently delicious.
And in a rally defying physics, the world number four proved he’s hungry to replicate the form that saw him plough his way to the US Open final, where he was vanquished by Rafael Nadal in a five-set thriller.
— ATP Tour (@atptour) January 23, 2020
Backtracking to recover a pinpoint lob, he whipped his response around his body, before nailing a backhand that bulleted past Spain’s Pedro Martinez on his next strike.
With that ability to transition from defence to offence, it’s no wonder Medvedev has garnered a reputation as the ‘Great Wall.’
Nothing appeared capable of shaking Medvedev’s stride as he won seven games on the trot until the midway point of the second set, before the Russian suffered an untimely nosebleed.
The trainer was brought out, and soon, pristine white towels took on the appearance of a Rorschach inkblot test.
Unperturbed, Medvedev coasted to the finish line, seeing off Martinez 7-5 6-1 6-3.
Medvedev could next reprise his turn as villain, made famous numerous times in New York, with a potential third-round encounter against Australia’s Alexei Popyrin.
The Open battles the elements (again)
Play on Melbourne Park’s outdoor courts, exposed to the harsh brutality of the Australian summer, failed to commence until at least 12:30pm, with some not seeing a single ball struck for more than three hours.
But it wasn’t for any old rain delay.
This instalment of the Australian Open, already afflicted by smoke haze from the Gippsland and NSW bushfires and swirly winds on Wednesday, now resembled the clay courts of Roland Garros.
And it was due to red dust, which swept into Melbourne from South Australia and NSW during overnight storm activity.
Cleaning teams rushed to pressure hose down the discoloured courts and seats, to ensure spectators did not have their tennis-watching experience tarnished by rust-coloured bottoms.
Wow tough situation with rain last night and a dust storm in Melbourne. Courts team working hard to get courts cleaned and ready for play. You can see the orange dust on court #AusOpen pic.twitter.com/Whpo8EGIYK
— Nick McCarvel (@NickMcCarvel) January 23, 2020
Questions were raised of tournament organisers for not pre-emptively covering the outside courts with tarps, with dusty rainfall forecast hours before it struck Melbourne.
Already contending with massive delays across the tournament site, the day’s play plunged into further disarray after unwelcome rain returned, seeing action across all but the three showcourts suspended.
Looking ahead — tonight’s must-watch matches
Nick Kyrgios  (AUS) v Gilles Simon (FRA)
Back on his favoured ‘People’s Court’, Nick Kyrgios will hope to make another fast start against seasoned Frenchman Gilles Simon.
Both former quarterfinalists — Kyrgios in 2015, Simon in 2009 — expect the Australian’s flashy style to overpower the brick wall-like ways of the 36-year-old journeyman, with the help of a boisterous crowd.
Elina Svitolina  (UKR) v Lauren Davis (USA)
Elina Svitolina’s love affair with Melbourne Park has seen the Ukrainian make the last eight two years running, and will be looking to build on her semi-final appearances at Wimbledon and New York last year.
But first, the giant-killing American Davis, who executed an almighty upset over defending Wimbledon champion Angelique Kerber last year, and pushed Simona Halep in a four-hour match in Melbourne in 2018. Upset alert?