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2024 Australian Open – The Pleasures of Opening Week

By Vanessa Taylor

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The rain poured down on the opening day of Opening Week. Matches were delayed and delayed and delayed again until the schedulers gave up.

Happily, the rest of the week’s weather was perfect and the qualifying event could make up lost time.

Last year, Tennis Australia announced the week prior to the Australian Open would be known as “Welcome Week”, comprised of the three qualifying rounds, practice sessions on Rod Laver Arena featuring top players, and entertainment through Kids Day and charity fundraisers. The admission costs would be minimal to cater for families.

Renamed “Opening Week” for 2024, the price of a ground pass – which included the daytime Arena practice sessions – remained the same good value, AU$10 for adults and AU$5 for children.

The “week” this year was actually six days as the usual Sunday finish was taken over by the now 15-day Australian Open main draw as the first day of round 1. Due to the rain wiping out Monday, those six days became five.

The customer service staff were raring to go on Tuesday. Photo: Tennis Australia/ Alex Coppel

In the brilliant sunshine of Tuesday, with a comfortable temperature of 26°C, staff and tennis fans were keen to get the event started.

Checking the daily practice schedule is one of the first things many fans do. Court 10 is often used as a practice court during qualifying and the Open and remains a magnet for fans seeking autographs and selfies with players.

World No. 10 Alex De Minaur signs autographs after practising on Court 10. Photo: Tennis Australia/ Brenton Edwards

On Rod Laver Arena, two top 5 players took to the court in front of hundreds of fans, before word got around about who was practising, and several hundred more turned up.

Carlos Alcaraz won the two hour practice match against Andrey Rublev.

They ran each other ragged but relaxed at extended sit downs to discuss any necessary fine-tuning with their coaching teams.

Carlos Alcaraz playing a practice match on Rod Laver Arena with Andrey Rublev. Photo: Vanessa Taylor
Andrey Rublev practising on Rod Laver Arena. Photo: Vanessa Taylor

The real business of the event, the qualifying, was well attended too.

Ranked 223 in the world, 31 year old Anika Raina is India’s top female player. In her first round, she defeated Spain’s Jessica Bouzas Maneiro in a long and tightly contested match, 6-4 5-7 7-5(10-4).

Perhaps Raina was still feeling the effects of the match the next day, when she played her second round against 17 year old Sara Bejlek of the Czech Republic. Bejlek defeated Raina 6-1 7-5 and went on to win her next two rounds to qualify.

Ankita Raina fought to win her first round match. Photo: Vanessa Taylor

Two other over-30 players trying to make their way to the main draw were Argentine Diego Schwartzman and David Goffin of Belgium. Both were Top 10 in the past and similar stories led them to the 2024 qualifying tournament.

Schwartzman was world No. 8 in 2020, but a considerable loss of form and a leg injury in early 2023 contributed to his fall to 107.

Show Court 3 was packed, with the Argentinians cheering and chanting for Schwartzman as he valiantly tried to hang on in the match with the afternoon turning into dusk. But the 11th seed lost 6-7(7) 4-6 to unseeded American Denis Kudla.

Diego Schwartzman rues a missed shot. Photo: Vanessa Taylor

Goffin was world No. 7 in 2017 and has reached the quarterfinals of four Grand Slams. He is now 112, thanks to ankle, leg, knee and eye injuries.

The Belgian beat Italian Stefano Travaglia in straight sets, aided considerably by Travaglia’s 42 unforced errors.

Brit Billy Harris surprised Goffin in the first set of their match. Playing well above his ranking of 199, Harris dominated with remarkable winners and broke serve in the fourth game. At 2-2 0-30 in the second, a frustrated Goffin belted his racquet against the back of the court and received a warning. This seemed to spur him on and he went on to claim the second set with an ace.

It was then the turn of Harris to lose the plot. Down 2-5 0-30 in the final set, he got a warning for ball abuse. It was too late for him to revive the match and Goffin won 3-6 6-3 6-2.

A three-set win over Canadian Gabriel Diallo saw Goffin progress through Grand Slam qualifying for the first time, to play in his 42nd major.

David Goffin, the 8th seed, playing his first round. Photo: Vanessa Taylor
Erika Andreeva was the 5th seed in the women’s qualifying event. Photo: Vanessa Taylor

Nineteen year old Erika Andreeva played on the first day of qualifying. Currently ranked 113, she easily beat Australian wild card Kaylah McPhee, 6-1 6-2. In the second round, she fell to fellow Russian Polina Kudermetova in straight sets.

Her 16 year old sister, Mirra Andreeva, was runner-up in the thrilling marathon match of 198 minutes that was the Girls’ championship last year. Currently ranked 46 in the world, she gained direct entry into the main draw.

Alina Korneeva, now 179 in the WTA rankings, playing the first round of qualifying. Photo: Vanessa Taylor

The girl who defeated M. Andreeva in the 2023 Girls’ final is Alina Korneeva, also now 16 years of age. She followed her success in Melbourne by winning the Junior Girls’ title at Roland Garros, and ended her year as the No. 1 junior in the world.

Now 156 in the WTA rankings, in qualifying for the Australian Open Korneeva overcame Sachia Vickery 7-5 in the third set; XeXin Ma 5-7 6-4 7-6(10-3) and 11th seed Anna Bondár 3 and 3.

Brenda Fruhvirtova playing the first round against Petra Hule. Photo: Vanessa Taylor

Another 16 year old navigating qualies to make the main draw was Brenda Fruhvirtova of the Czech Republic.

Ranked 107 and seeded 10th, she faced consecutive Australians. Against Petra Hule she fired down eight aces in a 6-4 6-4 victory. Talia Gibson was a more difficult opponent in a 1-6 6-3 7-5 result. Fruhvirtova then swept past China’s Sijia Wei who struggled with double faults, 6-2 6-4, to join her elder sister Linda in the main draw.

In the second round, there was an exciting comeback from 163-ranked Jule Niemeier.

Many tennis fans became aware of German Niemeier as she progressed to the quarter finals at Wimbledon in 2022. Unfortunately, she received no ranking points for her effort due to the WTA protest action that year.

Jule Niemeier playing her second round match on Court 17. Photo: Vanessa Taylor
Renata Zarazúa playing Jule Niemeier. Photo: Vanessa Taylor

Now, on breezy Court 17 in Melbourne, Niemeier lost the first set 4-6. So she changed tactics to serve and volley and otherwise get to the net as much as possible, to take the second set 7-5.

Somehow, she found herself down 0-5 in third as the vocal Mexicans in the crowd urged on her opponent Renata Zarazúa. 

Seeded No. 2 with a ranking of 97, Zarazúa watched as her nerves and Niemeier’s nothing-to-lose winners evaporate her lead. Eventually, Zarazúa cut her errors and won the match tiebreak 11-9.

Aryna Sabalenka completing the Sky Cadet Challenge at the AO Ballpark. Photo: Tennis Australia/ Fiona Hamilton

Of course, Opening Week is not just about watching tennis.

The AO Ballpark runs everyday, along with performances by dozens of children’s entertainers scattered around the venues.

On the Saturday, Kids Day takes over mthe precinct. At Grand Slam Oval, Spiderman and the Baby Dinosaurs were especially popular, while a packed Rod Laver Arena hosted a Spectacular featuring dancers, acrobats and “dingles” rotations from Emma Raducanu, Alex De Minaur, Caroline Wozniacki, Coco Gauff, Ajla Tomljanović and Thanasi Kokkinakis.

This year’s Arena Spectacular on Kids Day. Photo: Vanessa Taylor

Most evenings, Rod Laver Arena was occupied by a charity match to raise funds for the Australian Tennis Foundation on behalf of disadvantaged kids.

The first match of the charity program, to feature four-time Grand Slam winner Naomi Osaka, was cancelled.

So the following night, world No. 2 Carlos Alcaraz kicked off the program in a practice match with Australian No.1 Alex De Minaur.

The next evening was titled “A Night with Novak and Friends”. His friends were Stefanos Tsitsipas, Maria Sakkari, Heath Davidson and the women’s defending champion, Aryna Sabalenka.

As a cricketer, Novak Djokovic is no Ash Barty. Photo: Joel Carrett/AAP

Djokovic played a set with Tsitsipas before trying his hand at other sports. He sprinted with track athlete Peter Bol; shot hoops with NBA basketballer Alan Williams; did the splits with Commonwealth Games Gold Medal gymnast; and bowled to test cricketer Steve Smith who reciprocated by having a hit of tennis with Djokovic.

Finally, Carlos Alcaraz returned on the Friday night to take on world No.11 Casper Ruud.

Crowds throughout the five days were noticeably larger than last year’s Welcome Week, though there were blissfully no queues for food, beverages, seats or restrooms.

Over 63,000 people attended Opening Week despite the loss of play on a rainy day.

Title photo by Tennis Australia/ Aaron Francis

UPDATE

Sara Bejlek went down to No. 32 Leylah Fernandez in the first round, 6-7(5) 2-6.

David Goffin didn’t get past the first round, losing to Ugo Humbert, 2-6 5-7 7-5 3-6.

Alina Korneeva made the second round, where she lost to 10th seed Beatriz Haddad Maia, 1-6, 2-6.

Brenda Fruhvirtova came up against defending champion and 2nd seed Aryna Sabalenka in the second round. Sabalenka won 6-3 6-2.

Renata Zarazúa was defeated, 6-4 4-6 2-6, in the first round by Martina Trevisan.

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