It was the first day of qualifying for the 2018 Australian Open but it wound up being so much more than that.
The evening highlight was The Tiebreak Tens exhibition event in Margaret Court Arena featuring an eight-man format playing down to a winner with every match being a first-to-10-points tiebreak.
Rafael Nadal and Novak Djokovic were the headliners, as well as Stan Wawrinka who had to withdraw (putting his Aussie Open participation in doubt) with a shoulder problem. The Swiss’ place was taken by Milos Raonic who was probably eager for some match competition in a tournament setting.
He then played Tomas Berdych in the semifinals and pushed the Czech to the limit before going out 11-9.
Djokovic had been beaten 10-5 in the first round by 36-year-old Lleyton Hewitt who then held a match point on Nadal before losing.
In the final, Berdych was the surprise big winner – defeating Nadal 10-5 and taking home a tidy $250,000 Aus.
It’s a bit of a silly season in Australia as several players try to make up for lack of match play with exhibition events.
The man with the most famous (and worrisome) elbow in tennis (see above before last night’s Tiebreak Tens) played in both the Kooyong Classic in Melbourne and The Tiebreak Tens at Melbourne Park.
Genie Bouchard, who is 0-4 in matches this year, practiced at Melbourne Park on Tuesday and was chased for autographs and selfies afterward. She will get some extra court time on Thursday when she takes on Aussie 17-year-old Destanee Aiava at the Kooyong exhibition.
As well as all that was going on in Melbourne, Denis Shapovalov faced Juan Martin del Potro in the second round of the ATP 250 in Auckland, New Zealand. Shapovalov had beaten del Potro at the 2017 Rogers Cup in Montreal in two sets but this time the monster-hitting Argentine was wary and pulled out all the stops in a 6-2, 6-4 win. On his day del Potro can beat anyone and so Shapovalov shouldn’t be too discouraged as he moves on to Melbourne for next week’s Australian Open, the third Grand Slam main draw of his young career.
The day began in earnest for Canadian players in the qualifying on Wednesday when Filip Peliwo faced No. 112-ranked Cameron Norrie of Britain on Court 14. He won the first game and then had break points in the second before dropping six games in a row and the set to Norrie. From then on it was a completely competitive match with Peliwo playing more aggressively – hitting flatter and harder – to take the second set tiebreak 7-4.
Norrie broke in the first game of the third set and Peliwo never quite recovered although he had a break point in the final game to level at 5-all before finally going down 6-1, 6-7(4), 6-4.
Peliwo was the more aggressive hitter and tried to get to the net when the opportunity presented itself – in essence he did everything right but just came up a little short.
Afterward, he was calm and analytical about the loss, especially because he had remained aggressive and offensive-minded throughout. “There were moments in the whole match where I definitely could have played better,” Peliwo said. “He (Norrie) played well – like in the last game I had a break point to even it up and he hit a great serve – three greats serves actually.
“The first set was not great – I was spraying balls – but I got it going again in the second. I think I tried to play the right way but it wasn’t as clean as I would have liked.
“I have to live and die by the way I play. I’ve just got to keep working – it’s the beginning of the year. I’m just going to try to tighten up those finishing shots.”
On Court 12 shortly after Peliwo finished, Peter Polansky got tangled up with Joao Domingues, a tenacious Portuguese who would probably have been even more challenging on a clay court because of his remarkable retrieving skills – particularly a neutralizing sliced backhand. Polansky couldn’t get the measure of the diminutive Domingues until the first set tiebreak, when his superior firepower finally wore down his 24-year-old opponent. He took the tiebreak 7-2 on his way to a 7-6(2), 6-4 win.
“He was staying back at the fence and getting to everything, extending the points and getting everything back,” Polansky said about Domingues. “It was tough to get the ball by him. He was a tricky player because he’d go high and deep and then he’d go flat. He was mixing up a lot of stuff – (smiles) I didn’t like it.”
About the momentum-shifting tiebreak, Polansky added, “after a couple of points he was huffing and puffing a little more. He just literally slowed by one step and that was enough to be getting the ball by him.
“He’s a lot better than I thought he was since most of his results were on clay.”
In Friday’s second round, Polansky will play 23-year-old American Christian Harrison, the younger brother of Ryan Harrison.
Brayden Schnur had the toughest loss for a Canadian on day one of qualifying. He was beaten 1-6, 6-3 6-4 by Yuki Bhambri of India.
The No. 185-ranked Schnur dominated the first set but from set two onward it was an even contest. Bhambri broke to 4-2 in the second set and made it stand up to even things at a set apiece.
Schnur was the more powerful player on the serve and off the ground but the 25-year-old Bhambri was just a tiny bit more consistent and a more mature competitor.
Bhambri broke serve to lead 3-2 in the third set with the help of some sloppy play by Schnur but then the Indian returned the favour as Schnur broke back to 3-all on a rash of the Indian’s unforced errors.
The match finally slipped away from Schnur when he couldn’t get his first serve in and Bhambri broke in the ninth game to lead 5-4 and be serving for the match.
Schnur did not go down easy – saving three match points – the first two with a backhand winner and the second with a deft backhand volley winner. But Bhambri persisted and finally sealed the deal on his fourth match point – putting away a forehand off a ball that had tipped the top of the net.
It was a tough loss for the 22-year-old Schnur in only his second Grand Slam qualifying – but he showed he has the weapons to continue to climb up the rankings.
Playing on Court 13, Vasek Pospisil was a bit like Polansky, he had trouble pulling away from his pesky opponent – No. 259-ranked Lorenzo Giustino of Italy, the last player to get into the qualifying.
Pospisil had a good serving day – winning 78 per cent of first serve points and 70 per cent on second serve – and broke in the final game of the first set on his way to a 7-5, 7-6(5) win.
“It was a good serving performance,” Pospisil summed up. “I was hitting the ball pretty well but I wasn’t feeling particularly sharp overall. Also, there was a little bit of tension with it being the first tournament match of the year.
“I played well when I needed to but honestly it could have been better. I’m happy I was able to get through.”
Pospisil entered the qualifying off a week at the Hopman Cup in Perth where he lost in three sets to Thanasi Kokkinakis and in straight sets to Sascha Zverev and David Goffin. “I was travelling tons going to Perth,” he said. “I felt pretty good against Goffin but the first two matches I was pretty rusty.”
In the second round Pospisil faces 6-foot-5 Stefano Neapolitano of Italy, a 22-year-old who ranks No. 217.
The final Canadian in action on day one was the oldest – 33-year-old Frank Dancevic. The street-smart veteran looked vulnerable after he lost the first set to No. 126-ranked Adrian Menendez-Maceiras and then trailed 4-1 in the tiebreak that decided the second set. But he used all his guile to pull out a 3-6, 7-6(6), 6-3 victory over the 32-year-old Spaniard.
“I just kind of let loose at 4-1, but it was only one mini-break and I was serving well actually,” Dancevic said about the second-set tiebreak.
“I made up my mind to play the guy’s forehand the rest of the match. He was so shaky on his forehand under pressure. I decided he’s going to have to beat me with his forehand – his backhand was so solid, he didn’t miss one ball.”
Dancevic figured out part way through the second set that Menendez-Maceiras was reading his serve – seeing that if he tossed it to the right he was going to serve wide. So Dancevic threw up his toss to the right and then hit the serve up the middle. “I started messing with him with my toss,” Dancevic joked.
Dancevic is competing for the first time since he and wife Nikolina welcomed newly-born son Alexander less than two months ago.
About what kind of father he is, Dancevic smiled and said, “I stayed home for the off-season, didn’t I? It’s a life-changing experience. It’s amazing. He’s doing great and my wife is doing great too.”
On Friday, Dancevic plays 19-year-old Duckhee Lee of Korea – a player who has received a fair bit of publicity recently because he is deaf.
Canadian women make their qualifying debuts on Thursday. Carl Zhao, ranked No. 145, will play No. 131-ranked Denisa Allertova. The 24-year-old Czech has played qualifying at the Australian Open and reached the main draw in the past – in 2015 when she made the second round out of qualifying and lost to Alizé Cornet. This is Zhao’s first Grand Slam qualifying.
Bianca Andreescu, 17, will play in her fourth consecutive Grand Slam qualifying – she qualified at Wimbledon in July. She takes on No. 190 Alexandra Dulgheru. The 28-year-old Romanian has played the Australian Open every year since 2010 except 2013.
Francoise Abanda, attempting to qualify for a Grand Slam for the fourth time in eight tries, has drawn 28-year-old Jing-Jing Lu. The No. 160-ranked Chinese last played the Australian Open qualifying in 2012.
This sign at the corner of Church and Swan streets in Melbourne refers to pedestrians – not performance enhancing drugs.