This is the first post detailing my week at the 2018 Australian Open. It was such an amazing experience and I am still buzzing to have achieved my Career Slam. I’ll be recapping each of the four days with plenty of photos and finishing up with a review of the fan experience. For a review of the Hopman Cup and the Sydney International, click on the related links. Let’s get stuck into day 1 at the AO!
The main motivation for our trip to Australia was to visit the Australian Open so excitement levels were sky high on that first morning. We decided to stay out of the city in East Melbourne which meant that we could walk to the tennis and not have to worry about transport. On our way to the grounds we went through Fitzroy Gardens (a bit of a detour but time was limited in Melbs so we wanted to see as much of the city as we could!) and then cut across towards the Melbourne cricket ground (MCG) where we took the Emirates Skydeck over the railway line. It was here that we got our first shot of the grounds. I felt like a child on Christmas Day all over again. It had always been a dream of mine to one day visit the Australian Open and it was about to finally be realised.
We arrived at 09:40am before gates opened at 10am. There was a pretty hefty queue already at the Garden Square entrance. After half an hour we were finally through security and in! Rod Laver Arena was there right in front of us – time for the obligatory photo!
Visiting a new tournament is always a little overwhelming so with an hour before play started, we set off on a mission to try and get a lay of the land. We headed out to the east of the grounds towards Hisense Arena, taking a detour via court 18. There we found Petra Kvitova practising with barely anyone watching. First pictures of the AO and it felt rather special that it was Petra who was at the top of my list of players I wanted to see. I was hoping to catch a Petra smile – all I got was a glimpse! I noticed she was still coughing having been sidelined from Brisbane with a viral illness.
My brother dragged me away from Petra to Hisense Arena where we did a loop around the stadium. On the map there were practice courts to the east of Hisense (and I knew Lucie was practising there on the first morning) but we couldn’t work out how to get to them. They appeared off-limits – I later heard that this was not necessarily the case but I didn’t get the opportunity to explore! The inside of Hisense was very modern and there were plenty of food and drink stands dotted around.
We then headed back out past Grand Slam Oval and towards Rod Laver Arena and MCA. I didn’t realise how close the two stadiums were to each other. We had a bit more time so wandered towards the outside courts in the north west corner of the grounds. Stan Wawrinka and Thanasi Kokkinakis were practising together with a big crowd watching on.
We felt we had roughly figured out the grounds and headed to our seats on MCA. We were in the upper tier but there really isn’t a bad seat in the stadium. The first match of the day was the US Open champ and number 13 seed, Sloane Stephens, up against Zhang Shuai. This was a pretty brutal opener as Zhang was seeded at the last Slam in New York and had previous history at the Australian Open, having gone on a fairytale run to the quarter-finals back in 2016.
I wasn’t expecting much from Stephens having watched her start her season in Sydney in rather shocking fashion. However, I was pleasantly surprised as she rather emphatically won the opening set, 6-2. Unlike in Sydney, Stephens was completely engaged and very solid. The American turned defence into attack seamlessly and wasn’t afraid to go down-the-line and inject some pace. Zhang was aggressive without doing much damage and hit too many unforced errors.
Zhang went up an early break in the second set and was using her aggression much more effectively by stepping into the court and getting closer to the net. Stephens recovered the break and then played a clutch return game to break at 4-4. Stephens served for the match at 6-2 *5-4 for what would have been her first win post-US Open. There were clearly some nerves, yet it was more about Zhang who played a great return game to break back. Zhang’s level went up several notches as she moved Stephens from side-to-side with punishing and relentless ball striking.
Zhang won the second set tiebreak, 7-6(2) and then came through the decider rather comfortably, not doing a lot wrong. Zhang Shuai won, 2-6 7-6(2) 6-2 in one hour and 58 minutes. Stephens seemed to run out of gas. It was understandable being just her second match of the year. I’m not concerned at all about Stephens and I think she’ll be back to winning ways soon. The pair shared a lovely embrace at the net, initiated by Sloane, who had said in her pre-tournament press that Zhang was her “favourite person on tour”. Zhang was understandably delighted by the win and was very sweet in her post-match interview. It was a great start to the day and it had been a quality match (61 winners!) to open up our AO experience.
We headed out of MCA and went straight to Show Court 2 where Kaia Kanepi had just taken the first set against Dominika Cibulkova, 6-2. Both players had gone off court. We sat briefly behind a group of Domi supporters who were VERY vocal – we saw this group of lads numerous time during the tournament and they had all kinds of chants 😂. Sadly we didn’t get to see any of the tennis because it began to rain! I couldn’t quite believe it. It was a brief shower and we used the time effectively to go get some lunch before attacking the tennis again.
After studying the schedule, we then headed to court 15 which is neatly tucked in the north west corner of the ground. The number 30 seed, Kiki Bertens was playing CiCi Bellis. It was a strange kind of match-up because you could easily have mistaken Bellis for being the seeded player. We arrived just after Bellis had won the first set in a tiebreak. It was a good crowd and we managed to get seats in the lone stand.
I’d briefly seen Bertens live before but I was really taken aback by how powerful her game is. While there were many times when she lacked control, Bertens’s pressure finally paid off and she won the second set, 6-4. Bellis was really struggling to make an impact as she continually dumped groundstrokes into the net, clearly perturbed by Bertens’s pace and depth.
Bertens, who had the majority of crowd support, drew away at the start of the third set. I wasn’t convinced though that a 4-0 lead was safe. This proved to be the case as 4-0 quickly became 4-2 and Bellis carved open a 0-30 opportunity on the Bertens serve. I kind of expected Bellis, one of the better competitors on tour in my opinion, to jump on her opportunity and level up. However, the American player missed some key returns and made some unfortunate errors.
Bertens was clearly nervy but did really well at the end to score the win, celebrating with arms aloft. Bertens won, 6-7(5) 6-4 6-2 in two hours and 23 minutes. It was Bertens’s best win by ranking since August of 2017 and she looked so relieved. There was a nice, respectful handshake between the pair. Bellis is definitely one to watch although there is much work to do going forward. My brother noted how she looked uncomfortable coming forward and was mostly unwilling to volley.
The next match I wanted to see was Anett Kontaveit up against Aleksandra Krunic on Court 12. When we left Bertens-Bellis, Kontaveit looked to be storming to victory, up 6-4 5-2. I really do like Anett but I’ve followed enough of her matches to know that this was far from over! As we arrived at the court Krunic levelled up at 5-5 in the second set.
It was one of those tiptoe moments (i’m short, it’s damn annoying 😂) so I couldn’t really see what was going on. It was a tight ending to the match and Kontaveit came through in straight sets, 6-4 7-5. I did manage to get an obscured picture of the Kontaveit victory roar. There was a really nice moment at the net as both players patted each other on the back.
Next it was over to Show Court 2 for one of just two men’s matches I had circled – yes, I do watch men’s tennis occasionally 😂. The match featured two players I’d never seen before, Denis Shapovalov and Stefanos Tsitsipas. We joined at the start of the third set with Shapovalov up two sets to love. We had great seats and I loved the backdrop of the city from this court. The sun came out for the first time too!
We were sat behind some Tsitsipas fans which became the focal point of the third set. As we arrived, one of them got up and shouted “I hope you like playing five sets, Denis”. They were very passionate and chanting after pretty much any point that Tsitsipas won. To the left of us was one very vocal Shapovalov fan and there was definitely tension brewing. It was very entertaining from our position!
The Shapovalov fan was becoming more and more vocal. There were a few shouts of “finish him off, Denis” and during one rally he made a kind of squeal after one of Shapovalov’s shots. This angered the group of Tsitsipas fans in front of us. One of them stood up after the point and shouted across “be quiet during the points”. The Shapovalov fan retorted “sit down” followed by “let’s take this outside”. I didn’t know whether to laugh or run 😂😂😂. I’d never seen anything like it at a tennis match.
The stewards soon turned up and first had words with the Shapovalov fan who we barely heard a peep out of for the rest of the match. At the next changeover a steward had a word with the Tsitsipas fans. One of the guys was very rude to the steward who was just trying to do his job. They said that they had been coming for ten years which apparently was a suitable explanation for their behaviour. Tempers calmed down between the two parties although the Tsitsipas fans were still vociferous in their support. To be fair they didn’t have a great deal to shout about as Tsitsipas was having an absolute shocker on court. He shanked so many balls and just didn’t seem to be all there. I wondered if he may have been carrying an injury?
I thought Shapovalov looked great at the start of the third set and I loved how eager he was to come forward. He took his foot off the pedal towards the end of the set, losing his break lead as Tsitsipas kept more balls in court. Shapovalov edged the third set tiebreak to prevail, 6-1 6-3 7-6(5), winning the last two points with really positive ventures forward.
It was an eventful match and I can report that we didn’t see a fight afterwards although there was a heavy presence of security when we left the court! Both Shapovalov and Tsitsipas have very photogenic games and I really enjoyed capturing them for the first time.
We headed back to our seats on MCA for the remainder of the match between Sam Stosur and Monica Puig. The atmosphere was a little flat, even though Stosur was up a set. I almost got the sense from the crowd that they had endured the Stosur AO experience and were wary of the situation! The Aussie lost her break of serve in the second set, yet wrestled the match into the tiebreak where she even had a match point. Stosur resorted to defensive backhand slices with Puig taking it on and saving the match point.
It wasn’t the most enjoyable match as both players lacked rhythm. There was a strange fascination though to see who was going to prevail! The crowd finally piped up with Puig serving for the match at *5-4 in the decider. Stosur won the first point, easily the point of the match, with a rasping backhand winner down-the-line. Puig halted the optimism of the home crowd to win four straight points and take the match, 4-6 7-6(6) 6-4 in two hours and 20 minutes. Puig was absolutely delighted at the end and gave a really nice interview where she talked about admiring Sam and how nice it was for her to have the crowd support.
We finished our day on court 13 with the first set between the number 22 seed, Daria Kasatkina and the qualifier, Anna Karolina Schmiedlova. I’d say Dasha is my third fave these days and I really enjoy watching her play. There were huge cheers on most of the courts around us but it was pretty quiet on court 13. It was clear to me from the warm-up that Schmiedlova had a problem with her leg and was visibly limping. Kasatkina was solid and mostly smart as she moved Schmiedlova from side-to-side. Kasatkina won, 6-0 6-3 in 66 minutes.
That brought our first day at the Australian Open to a close and we finished it off with a wonderful dinner at an Italian restaurant in East Melbourne where we studied the schedule for day 2…