Sport Tennis Australian Open Australian Open: Different, but emotion still the driving force
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Australian Open: Different, but emotion still the driving force

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Ronnie Cabrera did not live long enough to witness the biggest match of his daughter Lizette’s tennis career, but when the Queensland wildcard walks out onto Rod Laver Arena against world No.2 Simona Halep on opening night of the Australian Open, her late father will be very much in her thoughts.

“He just loved tennis so much, and if he was here it honestly would have been a bucket list thing for him to sit in my box and watch me play on Rod Laver,’’ Lizette Cabrera said, the world No. 140.

“That was his ultimate dream, so this will definitely be dedicated to him.’’

Ronnie Cabrera, who had worked in a Brisbane abattoir to help finance his daughter’s career, passed away on September 25 from oesophageal and liver cancer, Lizette having returned from the US Open in time to share his final days.

“I was in quarantine but I had an exemption to see him for two hours a day and then when he passed I had to go back into hard quarantine, and no-one was allowed with me, so that was pretty tough,’’ Cabrera.

When Lizette Cabrera steps onto the court, there will be one thing on her mind. Photo: Getty

“Honestly, it’s probably the most difficult thing I’ve ever gone through in my life, but (it) definitely showed me that if I can get through that, then a tennis match is nothing.

“At the end of the day tennis is just a game. Life is more important; having good relationships with your family and making sure everyone’s OK, so whilst my family’s OK I’ll always be OK regardless of the results on the court.’’

While dual grand slam champion Halep is a regular competitor on Rod Laver Arena, it will be a first for Cabrera, who has hit there just three times – including a Sunday night practice session with her doubles partner Maddy Inglis (who, incidentally, will face defending AO champion Sofia Kenin in another challenging opening round, and on the main court).

Yet Cabrera says she is more thrilled and thankful than daunted to be playing the reigning Wimbledon champion and former world No.1, and – with her Mum Dolly at courtside – hopes she can control the inevitable nerves and emotions for what will be her fourth main draw appearance in her home major.

“When I was told (about the draw), I was just like, ‘Wow, that’s so exciting’. I’ve never played a top 10 player, and especially Halep, and I just think it’s going to be a really good opportunity,’’ Cabrera said.

“I’ve always watched her, and I like the way she plays, and her attitude and stuff, so I’ve always looked up to her in a way. But she doesn’t know me, doesn’t know how I play, so that should give me an element of surprise, I guess.

I’ve got nothing to lose and she kind of has everything to lose. Prime time, against the No. 2 in the world in your home slam, I don’t think it gets better than that.’’

Australia’s Billie Jean King Cup captain Alicia Molik was confident Cabrera would not find the stage too big, and urged her to seize the moment.

The 23-year-old is among three Australian women, along with five men, scheduled for opening day, from among a 23-strong local contingent. Six more, in fact, than last year.

These are also very different circumstances, obviously, but new Yarra Valley Classic champion (and unusual wombat trophy owner) Ash Barty retains the same rankings position – No.1 – and the country’s leading man, 21st seed Alex de Minaur, is just a couple of rungs below where he was when forced to miss the 2020 Open through injury.

Ash Barty’s win sets her up for a good week at the Australian Open.

Neither start until Tuesday, when the oldest and most experienced (Sam Stosur, 36 in her 19th appearance) plays the youngest (Destanee Aiava, 20).

Barty’s top ranking contrasts with the lowest, (Kim Birrell #747), and debutant Li Tu, the last-minute wildcard who is currently not ranked at all.

High profile pair Bernard Tomic (v Yuichi Sugita of Japan) and Nick Kyrgios (v Frederico Ferreira Silva of Portugal) are both dealing with knee injuries, while the latter’s stoush with old sparring partner Novak Djokovic continued on tournament eve.

The eight-time champion and world No.1 said that while he has respect for Kyrgios’ tennis ability and his right to express himself, “off the court, I don’t have much respect for him, to be honest. That’s where I’ll close it. I really don’t have any further comments for him, his own comments for me or anything else he’s trying to do”.

Nick Kyrgios Novak Djokovic
This is about as friendly as they get.

For the locals not ranked highly enough to earn direct main draw entry, there were some COVID cons (having to travel beyond their Melbourne Park backyard to Doha and Dubai for qualifying, with only Tomic successful, and two weeks of hotel quarantine awaiting on return).

But there were also some pros – such as less international competition for wildcards, partly through the temporary shelving of the reciprocal arrangement in place with the US and French Federations (although, understandably, five-time finalist Andy Murray was granted one before COVID-19 struck).

Birrell, who plays Canadian Rebecca Marino on Monday, was among the more obvious beneficiaries, given that players who lose in qualifying are ineligible for wildcards.

Unfortunate became fortuitous when the 22-year-old – who was planning to return from an elbow injury in Dubai, only to miss due to illness – was allocated the invitation originally issued to Asia-Pacific wildcard playoff winner Wang Xiyu, who withdrew after a positive COVID-19 test.

Kim Birrell is one of the lucky few who benefit from the COVID hiccup. Photo: Getty

Much has been made of the players’ contrasting preparations, including the unfortunate 72 who spent a fortnight confined to their hotel rooms, compared with the freedoms and flexibility enjoyed by the locals, which Molik believes has given the Australian-based players an advantage.

Time to see just how much.

Day one.

Play.

AUSTRALIANS IN FIRST-ROUND SINGLES ACTION ON MONDAY

(prefix denotes seeding)

1-Ash Barty v Danka Kovinic (MNE)

Ajla Tomljanovic v Misaki Doi (JPN)

(WC) Lizette Cabrera v 2-Simona Halep (ROM)

(WC) Kimberly Birrell v Rebecca Marino (CAN)

John Millman v Corentin Moutet (FRA)

Nick Kyrgios v Frederico Ferreira Silva (POR)

(Q) Bernard Tomic v Yuichi Sugita (JPN)

(WC) Alex Bolt v Norbert Gombos (SVK)

(WC) Marc Polmans v Marton Fucsovics (HUN)