Sport Tennis Australian Open Australian Open: Popyrin wins five-set thriller, Azarenka bundled out

Australian Open: Popyrin wins five-set thriller, Azarenka bundled out

Alexei Popyrin reacts to achieving the near-impossible. Photo: Getty
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Alexei Popyrin had no right to launch a magic come-from-behind win that would’ve left Houdini feeling chuffed.

Down two sets to one and 5-4 in the fourth set, the Australian cast a figure on Court 3 like a boxer on the ropes, wounded and gasping for air as the effects of a marathon rendezvous with Belgian terrier David Goffin made him heavy in the legs.

And as the Belgian served with two match points in hand, his love affair with Melbourne looked to have ended after two straight third-round showings.

But that was not to be, as whiffs of a comeback were in the air.

Saving those two points, and a further two match-ending points in the fourth set tiebreak for a final-set shootout, Popyrin’s heavy forehand found its range, started to dictate play and ran the 13th seed ragged.

The momentum was palpable as Goffin started to wilt after his two-game advantage dissipated in the final set. Spurred by a rambunctious crowd, Popyrin’s victory started to feel like a foregone conclusion.

And if any game were an accurate summary of the final set, it had to be the last.

Goffin raced out to a 40-0 lead, before some tired shots into the net drew the game to deuce. And with a final response to Popyrin’s menacing groundstrokes dumped into the net, the turnaround was complete.

Ecstasy, relief, call it what you will. But that 3-6, 6-4, 6-7, 7-6, 6-3 win is undoubtedly the most famous of Popyrin’s fledgling career.

Azarenka succumbs to Melbourne heat

But before that, the Australian Open had its first major boilover.

Victoria Azarenka, who was forced into hard quarantine after Spanish player Paula Badosa’s positive coronavirus case, was bundled out in the opening round by the powerful American Jessica Pegula 7-5 6-4 on Tuesday.

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A disappointed Victoria Azarenka exited the Open in the first round at the hands of Jessica Pegula. Photo: Getty

The Belarussian 2012 and 2013 champion was visibly hindered in the dying stages of the match and hunched over in the shadows of Margaret Court Arena down 5-7 2-4 following an extended backcourt exchange.

With the mercury rising to 25 degrees in Melbourne (and the temperature likely higher on-court), trainers quickly escorted the 2020 US Open runner-up off-court for a medical timeout.

But, despite a brief revival from Azarenka that brought the second set back on serve, Pegula held firm for her first top-40 win at the Grand Slam level.

Post-match, Azarenka bristled when asked about her breathing difficulties, and remarkably suggested player ailments be left out of journalists’ line of questioning.

“I truly don’t ever understand that rule of why, when somebody is sick, injured or whatever, they have to give their medical reason out in the world,” Azarenka said.

“It shouldn’t be a mandatory requirement for people to talk about their health issues. Even legally doctors should not release any information.”

Azarenka’s surprise exit follows the departure of Angelique Kerber, who suggested on Monday that extra days locked in a hotel room contributed to her first-round dumping.

“Maybe if I knew before that I would have to stay two weeks in the hard quarantine without hitting a ball, maybe I would think twice about [competing],” Kerber said after her loss.

Elsewhere, medical officials were called to Court 16 after a ball kid collapsed suddenly in the opening round clash between South Africa’s Lloyd Harris and Denmark’s Mikael Torpegaard.

Play was halted as officials responded to the incident. Tennis Australia officials said later the girl had been sent home to rest and recuperate.

“She will return to her ball kid duties later this week,” a spokesperson said.

Chris O’Connell has had a remarkable start to the 2021 Australian Open. Photo: Getty

O’Connell kickstarted Aussie charge

Just three years ago, Australian Chris O’Connell tossed up throwing his professional tennis career away while polishing boats on Sydney’s northern beaches.

But his perseverance paid off in spades on Tuesday after an electric display for his maiden Melbourne Park win.

O’Connell, who secured a wildcard into the main draw after a maiden victory at the US Open and deep showings on the Challenger Tour, dispatched German Jan-Lennard Struff 7-6(2) 7-6 (5) 6-1 in just over two hours.

On paper, O’Connell had no right to dismantle his opponent in such quick fashion. Struff was ranked 84 places above, helped Germany to a semi-final showing at last week’s ATP Cup and O’Connell had never posted a win against a top-50 opponent in his career.

It’s fair to say the local hero drew upon his momentum as one of tennis’ growing cohort of late bloomers.

After long battles with pneumonia and knee tendonitis – and a poor return to the sport once he recovered in 2018 – O’Connell’s ranking plummeted to outside the top 1000, before he launched a remarkable assault on the sport’s unheralded stages.

Entering 2020, he hadn’t won more than $30,000 in prize money in a single year – but with a pair of grand slam second round showings to his name, he’ll pocket at least $150,000 from this fortnight alone.

O’Connell joins fellow Australians Nick Kyrgios, Bernard Tomic, Alex Bolt, James Duckworth and Ajla Tomljanovic in the second round – they others booked their second round berths on Monday.

Elsewhere, wildcard Astra Sharma squandered a one-set lead before succumbing to Japan’s Nao Hibino 6-2 3-6 5-7.

Women’s finalists get off to winning start

Last year’s serendipitous Australian Open women’s finalists Sofia Kenin and Garbine Muguruza kicked off Day 2 looking to capture the same rich vein of form that propelled them to the second Saturday.

It was a far greater struggle for defending champion Kenin, who found her rhythm late to overcome local wildcard Maddison Inglis 7-5 6-4.

Inglis, who won back-to-back ITF titles in her pandemic-disrupted 2020, raced out of the blocks with the first break of the match, finding all the answers as her higher-ranked opponent struggled with an error-ridden forehand.

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Sofia Kenin had to work for her first-round win on Tuesday. Photo: Getty

Though mistakes still flowed from her racquet, the American quickly recovered the break, as the wily Australian drew out rallies with some lung-bursting retrieving.

Despite an exceptional unreturnable backhand struck from her shoelaces and some strong backcourt play, Kenin eventually ran away with the final three games of the opening set.

The Australian continued to appear unperturbed by her first outing on Rod Laver Arena, despite going down an early break in the second. She sent Kenin to all corners of the court and made up the deficit.

But it wasn’t enough, as Kenin jumped over the first hurdle in her title defence.

“I’m obviously not too happy with how I played, but a win is a win,” Kenin said post-match.

Garbine Muguruza rolled through her opening round appearance on Margaret Court Arena. Photo: Getty

Over on Margaret Court Arena, 2020 runner-up Garbine Muguruza had a far more comfortable outing in dispatching lucky loser Margarita Gasparyan 6-4 6-0 in 73 minutes.

Muguruza, who lost to Australia’s Ash Barty in last week’s Yarra Valley Classic, has won 11 of her past 13 matches in Australia and certainly appeared to hit her finals-worthy stride in the second set.

“It felt good out there. You know, excited to start the grand slam already after few weeks here on-site and in Melbourne,” she said.

Badosa fires parting message at AO organisers

Spain’s Paula Badosa, the only player who contracted COVID in the lead-up to the Australian Open, was unable to capitalise on a chance to serve for a first-round win against qualifier Liudmila Samsonova.

After two hours and 38 minutes, she succumbed 7-6(4) 6-7(4) 5-7.

The 23-year-old was only allowed to enter the community and train on at Melbourne Park from mid-last week, which she told reporters had placed her at a significant disadvantage.

“Yeah, I was totally against the clock. I didn’t feel like that bad in tennis, but the first days I was training 40 minutes. Like my body was very, like, slow. It was tough for me to recover,” Badosa said.

She also spoke of the online vitriol she incurred after suggesting the hotel quarantine program was draconian (prior to her positive result) and said it had worsened her anxiety about her new ailment.

“Yeah, it’s been a tough experience. I am trying to get the positive side of this mentally. For sure it has a positive side. Of course, it’s been very, very tough. I think my level, it’s not even 70% that I was before.”

So, would she undergo the same hotel quarantine program next year if the world remains in the grips of a pandemic? It’s, well, unlikely.

“No, no [I won’t do it], because I lost a lot my level. I’m sad for the match, but I’m even more sad because I lost the level that I’ve been working so hard these two months in pre-season,” Badosa said.

Notable results

[5] Elina Svitolina (UKR) d. Marie Bouzkova (CZE) 6-3 7-6(5)

Coco Gauff (USA) d. Jil Teichmann (SUI) 6-3 6-2

[7] Andrey Rublev (RUS) d. Yannick Hanfmann (GER) 6-3 6-3 6-4

[11] Belinda Bencic (SUI) d. Lauren Davis (USA) 6-3 4-6 6-1

Mikael Ymer (SWE) d. [26] Hubert Hurkacz (POL) 3-6 6-3 3-6 7-5 6-3