Tennis

‘Hellish’ Melbourne ‘screws’ Aus Open

THE weather played havoc with Australian Open qualifying in Melbourne as several matches scheduled for Friday had to be postponed.

It pelted down at different stages in the Victorian capital but every time the downpours stopped and it looked like there was hope the courts would see some action, the clouds came back.

The staff at Melbourne Park even resorted to drying the courts by hand, taking to the surfaces with towels when machines wouldn’t work. But it was all in vain.

Britain’s Naomi Brady summed up the players’ torturous day as she prepared to face The Netherlands’ Bibiane Schoofs in the second round of qualifying.

Qualifying is scheduled to finish on Saturday but there’s a high chance of rain with possible thunderstorms forecast to start the weekend. That’s hardly the news players want to hear, many of whom still have two rounds to go in their pursuit of a main draw berth.

Matches played on Margaret Court Arena are still able to go ahead because the stadium has a retractable roof, but everyone involved will be hoping the weather gods smile kindly on Melbourne as the Australian Open edges closer.

Brisbane teenager Priscilla Hon is a match away from the main draw at Melbourne Park after defeating highly credentialed Belgian Yanina Wickmayer 2-6 7-5 6-1.

The 19-year-old overcame the fifth qualifying seed, a US Open semi-finalist, and a long rain delay which came a point into the third set.

After the court was mopped up, the Australian raced to a 5-0 lead and closed out the best win of her career.

“This is a dream,” she said. “I was just (saying), ‘Think you’re still losing. Don’t even think that you’re up’ … I don’t know how to describe it.”

She thanked the weather gods for the chance for a freshen up. “I don’t mind rain delays. Everyone kind of freaks out but it makes me chilled,” she said.

Hon was the only one of eight Australians this week to reach the second round of qualifying.

On Saturday, she’ll face American Irina Falconi in the hope of returning to one of the biggest stages in tennis.

PAIRE’S SHORTS DRAW ATTENTION AS DE MINAUR CONTINUES GOLDEN RUN

Australian teen sensation Alex De Minaur is within touching distance of a maiden ATP title after sweeping into the final of the Sydney International.

De Minaur surged from a set down to out-rally and ultimately outdo world No. 42 Frenchman Benoit Paire 4-6 6-1 6-1 in Friday night’s semi-final. His sixth-straight top-50 scalp seals his place in Saturday’s tournament decider against Russian qualifier Daniil Medvedev, after last week’s breakthrough Brisbane International semi-final appearance.

The 18-year-old is Sydney’s youngest finalist since Lleyton Hewitt won in 2000 at the same age, and this latest display showcased a prodigious tenacity and persistence not unlike that of his mentor.

Hewitt observed from the stands of a packed-out Ken Rosewall Arena, while Tomas Berdych no doubt will have watched his first-round Australian Open opponent with intrigue from Melbourne.

De Minaur was nimble and creative and pulled off some spectacular shots, attacking Paire’s forehand in a bid to frustrate.

Amid a slew of long rallies, the pair held serve until 4-4 but de Minaur was the first to crack, going a break down after an error-ridden game before conceding the opening set.

The local returned with a vengeance in the second, breaking Paire to love to take a 3-1 lead and, for good measure, taking the next game to love too. As de Minaur’s grip tightened on the match, Paire’s mental grasp slackened and the unforced errors piled up.

De Minaur was lucky with a net cord to break again and serve out the second set. In the third, he was made to endure six deuces to hold one particularly gruelling service game but still won 11 of the last 12 games and, after being denied two match points, converted the third.

De Minaur may have won the match but Paire provided a talking point of his own as plenty of viewers commented on his close-fitting shorts.

AAP

BARTY ON VERGE OF SYDNEY TRIUMPH

Ashleigh Barty will meet former world No. 1 Angelique Kerber in the Sydney International final, in the ideal tune-up for next week’s Australian Open. Barty on Friday became the first Australian in 13 years to advance to the tournament’s decider after toppling compatriot Daria Gavrilova 3-6 6-4 6-2.

“It’s nice to make a final at home, but I think in my eyes it’s perfect preparation for next week,” Barty said after her win.

The country’s top-ranked female player shook off an early serving funk to come back from two sets down and set up a decider against two-time major winner Kerber, who dismantled plucky Italian qualifier Camila Giorgi 6-2 6-3 on Friday evening.

The result marked the eighth successive singles win for Kerber, whose 2018 resurgence should ensure a quality showdown against Australia’s rapidly rising star.

World No. 19 Barty held serve just once in the first set but found her groove thereafter as the 25th-ranked Gavrilova struggled in the heat. Gavrilova’s frustration spilled over in the ninth game when, after coming back from 3-0 down to level at 4-all, she received a code violation for cracking her racquet.

“I shot myself in the foot with my serving in the first and didn’t give myself an opportunity to be dominant on service games,” Barty said. “Against Dash, she’s a world-class returner and puts pressure on you right from the get-go. For me, it was nice to find the rhythm eventually but (I) would definitely like to see it a little bit earlier.

“I’m still able to win tennis matches. I think even though it may not be perfect at the moment, it’s still good enough to win matches.”

Barty also welcomed the pressure of entering the season’s opening major as Australia’s highest-ranked female and 18th seed.

The Ipswich product opens her campaign against Belarusian and world No. 69 Aryna Sabalenka in a quarter of the draw that could lead to a possible third-round match against world No. 16 Elena Vesnina.

World No. 1 Simona Halep could await in the round of 16, however, Barty said she had learned from the home expectations usually placed for former US Open champion Samantha Stosur.

“Everyone is going through a different stage in their career, and obviously this is a first for me. Even last year was very much a first throughout the whole year,” she said.

“We have set up a perfect platform for me to work with this year to try and go deep in tournaments, whether it’s in Australia or in Europe or in the States.

“There is nothing better than playing at home, playing in front of a home crowd.

“Regardless whether you’re No. 1, No. 10, or No. 100 in the world, it’s the best feeling for an Australian to be playing at the Australian Open.”

AAP

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