Three Canadians took to the courts on Monday’s opening day of Australian Open qualifying, but only Carol Zhao made it through to Wednesday’s second round.
The 27-year-old from Toronto defeated Eudice Chong of Hong Kong 6-3, 6-2 but Eugenie Bouchard and Gabriel Diallo weren’t so fortunate.
Diallo lost serve twice against Aleksandar Vukic and that was enough to allow the 26-year-old Australian to advance 6-3, 6-4. Bouchard’s destiny involved considerably more intrigue as she was painfully close to victory before exiting 6-3, 1-6, 6-4 to 18-year-old American Ashlyn Krueger.
The Zhao win, her third in Grand Slam event qualifying, was reasonably straight-forward except when Chong closed to 3-4 after she fell behind 4-1 right off the start. Zhao finished off the first set in 44 minutes and was never really threatened in the second.
The match was played on Court 17 at the far eastern end of Melbourne Park, which is now a fairly remote location since several courts on that non-city side of the grounds were dispossessed in the process of constructing the new 5,000-seat KIA Arena.
Monday’s encounter featured long rallies with Chong usually the aggressor. But there was also plenty of forward movement with Zhao finishing 10/12 in net-play and Chong 8/12. Zhao was neater in the winners to unforced errors ratio – going 17/24 to 14/32 for Chong.
“One of my goals was to keep my foot on the gas,” Zhao said. “It’s never easy playing the first round of a Slam – everybody here is good. Overall I played a clean match. I’m definitely happy with the shape of my ball and my serving.”
A day that started out hot and summery quickly changed mid-afternoon to breezy and chillier.
“It was pretty difficult,” Zhao said about the conditions. “The sun was coming in and out and it was a little bit hard to see. And it was pretty windy – so not easy to find your timing. But that’s Melbourne – it could be 40 degrees, or 15 degrees and windy. You have to ready for anything.”
Next for Zhao will be No. 131-ranked Clara Burel. Asked what she new about the 21-year-old Frenchwoman, Zhao said, “not too much. I’ll have to do some scouting and see what happens.”
Bouchard’s three-set loss was both disappointing and a missed opportunity. She didn’t play well in the opening set, dropping her serve three times in a row to fall behind 4-2. Krueger then wrapped up the set 6-3 in 32 minutes.
The second set was a role reversal as the 6-foot-1 American, at a career-high ranking of No. 159, began to leak unforced errors just as Bouchard found her rhythm and controlled rallies with more precise shot-making.
Krueger’s forehand looked vulnerable and Bouchard locked in on it.
But there was a reset early in the third set as both players settled into more consistent tennis. Krueger’s game was played in explosive, erratic bursts while Bouchard’s was more consistent and smooth flowing.
Trailing 3-2, Bouchard held serve after saving a break point and seemed poised to use her experience to impose herself in the final push to the finish against a raw opponent.
At 4-4, everything was in place for her get a break of the Krueger serve and then serve out the match. The lanky, free-swinging American was showing signs of frustration and seemed to be there for the taking. Bouchard had her fate in her own hands when she had a break point and was perfectly positioned for a regulation forehand down-the-line winner. But she missed it into the net. That was totally off script for the way the match had been playing out and proved to be a 180-degree turning point in the match. And rarely are turning points so obvious and clear-cut.
From momentum going her way, Bouchard then won just one of the remaining seven points – erring with backhands on three of the last four points to end the one-hour and 53-minute encounter in KIA Arena.
There were the occasional cheers for Bouchard from the crowd of only about 250 people on the opening day with the Aussie Open charging ($10) for the qualifying for the first time – a fee that surprised some in the underwhelming turnout of spectators.
An indication of how close the Krueger-Bouchard match was their identical 5/12 break-point conversion ratios. Along with that crucial Bouchard misfire on the break point at 4-4, an important factor in the final set was improved serving by the gangly Krueger. The winners to unforced errors ratios illustrate how up and down the big-hitting American was – 26/44 to 10/34 for Bouchard in a match played in windy, difficult conditions with temperatures that dipped to about 20 degrees when an early afternoon cool change came through.
So Bouchard’s seventh Australian Open ends with a first-round loss in qualifying – and a lingering sense of how much the food poisoning, which forced her out of last week’s Auckland WTA 250 qualifying after winning a first round 6-4, 6-3 over No. 129 Ann Li of the USA, may have affected her preparation. She will now move on in 2023 with a ranking of No. 317.
Diallo had an opportunity to change the complexion of his match with the No. 139-ranked Vukic at the outset when he failed to convert on four break points in the Australian’s first two service games. He would only have one more the rest of the way as his in-form opponent both returned and served well to post the win on the same KIA Arena where Bouchard had lost two matches earlier.
Playing in his first Grand Slam event, the No. 227-ranked Diallo didn’t look out of place but Vukic was sharper and more opportunistic. Winners to unforced errors for the match were 23/26 for Diallo and 11/15 for Vukic.
“It’s Gabriel’s first Grand Slam experience,” said his coach Martin Laurendeau. “Five or six months ago he didn’t even think about making a Grand Slam this year. So to start the year with a Grand Slam is a great experience for him. It’s gives him the desire to play the other ones this year. And he’s in a good position to do that (with no ranking points to defend until the summer.)
“Gabriel has a nice athlete’s profile. He has lots of qualities – for a 6-foot-7 guy he moves really well. He has a superb backhand and a forehand that really goes through the court. And his serve is good and will eventually be a major weapon.
“We worked on a lot of things during the off-season. He’s getting better and he’s a guy who’s very ambitious. So there should be a terrific career ahead for him.”
Diallo, 21, is next entered in a Challenger in Cleveland in three weeks.
On Tuesday, Alexis Galarneau will face Great Britain’s Ryan Peniston in the fourth match on Court 14 while Katherine Sebov will also be fourth match – against last week’s WTA 250 Auckland runner up, the break-through Czech sensation Linda Noskova, 18. That’s on Court 17.
Told that Sebov would also be on Court 17 for her first match Tuesday against Noskova, Zhao said, “I was actually able to practice on this court a couple of days ago – so I think that helped me a lot. It’s nice, there’s stands on both sides so the wind is kind of blocked out a little bit.
“It’s going to be a good match. Katherine is playing well and Noskova obviously is coming off a final.”