Fun and games on Melbourne Arena, meanwhile, and this time it’s not only Kyrgios getting involved.
Halep speaks. “It was a little bit dangerous,” she says of the match. “I lost focus. She started to play very well at the end but I’m happy I went through. I like to play under pressure, it’s more fun and excitement, but I would prefer to finish the matches when I have a chance.” Halep is then asked about her pledge to donate to the bushfire fund every time she has a pop at her coach Darren Cahill. “I owe money today for sure. He’s counting. I’m afraid to ask. But it’s a nice thing to do.” And what of her chances of becoming a three-time grand slam champion? “It would sound really nice but I’m still far to think about this title.”
Halep defeats Dart 6-2, 6-4
Halep is rattled. She looks in a rush to finish this but Dart is calmly taking her time between points and holds courtesy of a couple of wonderful winners. Halep will again have to serve for the match …
A rally of tight angles at 30-15, and Halep eventually goes just wide. She looks at her coach Darren Cahill for confirmation of the call. 30-all. She’s screaming at Cahill after the next point because Halep plants another forehand into the net and it’s break point, 30-40. Dart, however, gets a bit too excited, going for a backhand winner with the odds stacked against her, and unsurprisingly she doesn’t make it. Deuce. Followed by Halep’s advantage, another match point to add to the one the Romanian had a couple of games ago. Dart is giving it all she has, stepping into the court and hammering away at Halep, and the Brit is rewarded for her efforts. Deuce. But it’s quickly followed by a third match point … and Halep again blinks! Deuce. A fourth match point. And this time Dart’s forehand loops well long and with that, British interest in the singles is over. A disappointing final point from Dart but she showed quite some fight in the second set against the two-time grand slam champion and former Australian Open finalist.
The end is seemingly nigh for Dart, but she digs out a wonderful winner while standing deep in the right-hand corner to hold for a 5-2 deficit. But Halep is now serving for the match. At 30-all, Dart has a chance as she steps into the court to put away the short ball … but she misses. It’s 40-30, match point. Halep does all the hard work, moving from one side to t’other, before thwacking into the net. Deuce. Break point! And Halep again nets! Dart’s box – including Britain’s Fed Cup captain Anne Keothavong, applaud energetically. Dart reduces her arrears to 6-2, 5-3. But is this anything more than a final flourish from the Brit?
Kyrgios takes the second set against Simon 6-4
Dart is in serious danger now on Rod Laver. Halep hurries through another game, holding serve to love, and it’s 6-2, 4-0. But I’m a little distracted by my rumbling stomach (I could really do with some breakfast) and Kyrgios’s chattering and chuntering on Melbourne Arena, where he’s unhappy about something or other, I think he may have been pulled up by the shot clock. It matters not, though, because he soon has set point at 40-30. A 216kph serve settles matters. Kyrgios leads 6-2, 6-4 and they’ve been playing for only just over an hour.
Halep still has a hold over Dart, breaking the Brit at the start of the second set and then backing that up for 6-2, 2-0. Make that 3-0. Meanwhile Simon is serving to stay in the second set of his match against Kyrgios at 5-3 down. Judging by the shorts Kyrgios is wearing he’s planning a trip to the beach when this match is done. Simon holds to 15, rounding things off with an ace, to force Kyrgios to serve the set out.
Stan is not the man on Margaret Court, where he’s shaking his head and shrugging as Seppi serves for the opening set at 5-4. And that’s from 3-0 down. And Seppi seals the set comfortably! Wawrinka slumps into his chair and sucks an energy gel. He may need a few more of those to turn this around.
Kyrgios isn’t letting up in the second set. He’s clobbered and cranked his way to a 6-2, 3-1 lead. Does the 35-year-old Simon have enough in the tank to stop the onslaught? The Frenchman does at least hold for 3-2. But Kyrgios is looking good to move a step closer to a potential fourth-round meeting with Rafael Nadal.
Halep wins the first set against Dart 6-2
It’s been blink-and-you’ll-miss-it tennis on Rod Laver, where Dart, having broken back for 1-1 after dropping her serve in the opening game, hasn’t got on the board since. It’s 5-1 Halep and Dart is serving to stay in the set at 30-all. The world No 173 digs in to hold. But she’ll now have to break Halep if she’s to inconvenience the former world No 1 for any longer in this set. Halep hurtles to 30-0. She’s got her game face on and is looking extremely focused. That said, she then prods a simple forehand long – followed by a routine backhand! 30-all. Dart has Halep on a piece of string on the next point, and is rewarded with a break chance! 30-40. But Halep then does what grand slam champions do, seeing off the danger and securing the set from her second advantage when Dart’s return flops into the tramlines.
Wawrinka whizzed into a 3-0 lead against Seppi but it’s now back on serve, with the champion of six years ago 3-2 ahead. And I should have mentioned that Monfils wrapped up his win, cutting the 6ft 11in Ivo Karlovic down to size, 4-6, 7-6 (8), 6-4, 7-5. And speaking of giants, John Isner is through, 6-4, 6-3, 6-3 against the Chilean qualifier Alejandro Tabilo.
Kyrgios secures the first set against Simon 6-2
So what of Kyrgios and Wawrinka? Kyrgios’s match has belatedly appeared on Eurosport with the Australian leading the 35-year-old Frenchman Gilles Simon 4-2 in the first set. He then biffs a backhand return down the line to secure the double break for 5-2. Melbourne Arena rises to applaud the 23rd seed, the player who Australia now loves to love. I mentioned Halep’s contribution to the bushfire relief effort but it was Kyrgios who kickstarted tennis’s response by pledging to donate A$200 for every ace he hits and he’s gained countless more fans as a result. He seems to be playing with real pride and patriotism at Melbourne Park this year. And he secures the set 6-2 after 27 minutes by cracking a forehand winner past a helpless Simon.
Just as I was checking in on the early stages of Nick Kyrgios v Gilles Simon and Stan Wawrinka v Andreas Seppi, Dart breaks back to love! That was unexpected. Though she’s certainly doesn’t look weighed down by nerves as she skips around the court and breathes freely. That’s already one more game than she won against Sharapova last year.
Halep won the toss, and will receive first. The Romanian has pledged to give A$200 to the bushfire fund every time she gives her Australian coach Darren Cahill any grief while on court. Given Halep’s tendency to vent at Cahill during matches, her wallet could be a fair bit lighter by the end of the tournament. She’s looking fairly serene right now though, attacking from 40-30 down on Dart’s serve in an entertaining opening game to break for 1-0.
So what does Dart make of today’s challenge? “It’s just another tennis match,” she says calmly. “Halep’s a great champion and it’s an opportunity to see where my level’s at. I like to keep my tactics close to my chest, so hopefully you’ll see it on the court.” We won’t have to wait much longer to find out, because they’re just finishing their warm-up …
The night session is upon us. What a walk for Harriet Dart. Though this isn’t the first time the British qualifier has stepped on to Rod Laver Arena. She did so last year as well … before being marmalised 6-0, 6-0 by Maria Sharapova. And is doesn’t get any easier today, because she’s up against the reigning Wimbledon champion and former world No 1, Simona Halep. Dart is the only British player left in the singles after Heather Watson’s earlier exit. No pressure, Harriet …
Monfils breaks Karlovic, literally and perhaps figuratively. The Frenchman leads 6-5 and will serve for the match.
The in-form young Russian Andrey Rublev, tipped for perhaps the top 10 this year, has just notched up his 10th consecutive win of 2020, defeating Japan’s Yuichi Sugita 6-2, 6-3, 7-6 (5). Meanwhile Gael Monfils, who seems positively youthful at 33 compared to his 40-year-old opponent Ivo Karlovic, are involved in a right old battle on the 1573 Arena. It’s 5-5 in the fourth set, with Monfils leading 4-6, 7-6 (8), 6-4, 5-5.
Elsewhere on the women’s side, Garbine Muguruza, unseeded in Melbourne after an absolutely terrible 2019, is showing signs of remembering who she actually is after a battling 6-3, 3-6, 6-3 victory over the Australian Ajla Tomljanovic; Karolina Pliskova, still the receiver of tennis’s great backhanded compliment of being the best women’s player not to have won a slam, won tidily, 6-3, 6-3 against the German Laura Siegemund; the sixth seed Belinda Bencic overcame the former French Open champion Jelena Ostapenko 7-5, 7-5 in a see-sawing match; Donna Vekic, Maria Sharapova’s conqueror, won again, this time in straight sets against Alize Cornet; the 20-year-old American CiCi Bellis, ranked in the top 50 as a teenager but now 600 in the world and playing her first grand slam event in two years after four surgeries, knocked out the 20th seed Karolina Muchova 6-4, 6-4; and the 2016 champion Angelique Kerber and the ninth seed Kiki Bertens won’t have been too popular, because they both saw off Australian wildcards in straight sets. Kerber beat Priscilla Hon 6-3, 6-2, while Bertens defeated Arina Rodionova, 6-3, 7-5.
As touched on in the preamble, Heather Watson suffered a one-sided defeat by Belgium’s 16th seed, Elise Mertens, 6-3, 6-0. Watson is the world No 75, so there’s no shame in losing to a player significantly higher than her in the rankings, but having produced a gutsy performance against Kristyna Pliskova in the first round, she’ll be disappointed not to have shown more fight against Mertens, who she beat in Hobart only last week.
But I digress. Five matches have been completed on the men’s side so far: Dominic Thiem was in plenty of trouble, two sets to one down against Australia’s Alex Bolt, before finishing with a flourish, 6-2, 5-7, 6-7 (5), 6-1, 6-2; Alex Zverev secured a welcome straight-sets win, 7-6 (5), 6-4, 7-5 over Egor Gerasimov of Belarus; the Latvian enigma that is Ernests Gulbis, who upset the rising Canadian Félix Auger-Aliassime in round one, bumped out the former Brit Aljaz Bedene also in straight sets; there’s been another win for the exciting young Australian Alexei Popyrin, 6-2, 7-6, 6-2 against Spain’s Jaume Munar; while last year’s US Open runner-up Daniil Medvedev got a bloodied nose – quite literally – but came through 7-5, 6-1, 6-3 against the Spanish qualifier Pedro Martínez.
What’s happened so far, you say? Well not quite as much as expected, because of the murky torrential rain that chucked down mud and dust on Melbourne Park and the rest of the city. Plenty of quips on social media about the clay court season coming early this year …
Only on the covered show courts did play start on time, with action on the outside courts delayed for several hours until the storm subsided and a clean-up operation involving power hoses and squeezy mops was finished. Why covers couldn’t have been put on the courts during the rain storm, who knows.
G’day! Or more accurately good evening, given the clock has ticked past 6pm in Melbourne and the night session begins in just over half an hour’s time when the man of the people Nick Kyrgios faces the Frenchman Gilles Simon. The match is over on the Melbourne Arena, where tournament organisers have again granted Kyrgios his wish of playing in front of the riff-raff who don’t have tickets for the two main show courts, which means Harriet Dart gets to enjoy the grander surroundings of Rod Laver. The qualifier, Britain’s sole survivor in the singles after Heather Watson was soundly beaten by Belgium’s Elise Mertens earlier, has a daunting second-round assignment against the Wimbledon champion, Simona Halep. That match is scheduled to start at 7pm local time/8am GMT, and is followed by Rafael Nadal’s
sorry meeting with Argentina’s Federico Delbonis. There are also two matches under the lights on Margaret Court: Stan Wawrinka, the 2014 champion, against Italy’s Andreas Seppi and Elina Svitolina, the fifth seed, versus the American Lauren Davis. And all of this with plenty still going on in the day session. Sit tight!