MELBOURNE: Iga Swiatek came through an opening test of fire in her hunt for a first Australian Open title on Tuesday (Jan 16) as the world number one battled past 2020 champion Sofia Kenin 7-6(2) 6-2 while blazing heat and blustery conditions made things difficult for players.
Four years after Swiatek won the pair’s only previous meeting in the French Open final, the 22-year-old twice fought back from a break down to claim the opening set in a tie-break on a sweltering Rod Laver Arena.
The four-times major champion had enjoyed a strong build-up to the year’s opening Grand Slam, with five successive singles wins in Poland’s run to the United Cup mixed team event final, and she broke American Kenin for a 3-2 lead in the next set.
Kenin, who has battled injuries, illness as well as off-court issues in recent years, fought on bravely and had the opportunity to hit back but top seed Swiatek stretched her advantage and pulled away for victory.
“It wasn’t the easiest first round,” said Swiatek, who is now on a 17-match winning run after triumphs in Beijing and the WTA Finals last year as well as her United Cup heroics.
“I tried to find my rhythm, play the important points well in the opening set. I felt off in terms of the timing. For sure the temperature was higher than any match I’ve played here and I needed to adjust as the balls were flying in these conditions.”
Up next for Swiatek is 2022 finalist Danielle Collins, who beat former champion Angelique Kerber 6-2 3-6 6-1.
Russian 14th seed Daria Kasatkina overcame American Peyton Stearns 6-2 3-6 6-2 but she too struggled with the weather.
“It’s windy and its hot, so it was difficult to control the ball,” said Kasatkina, before looking ahead to her second-round clash with former US Open champion Sloane Stephens.
“I’m happy with how I was able to play in the third set.”
Stephens, who reached a career-high ranking of number three in 2018 but has slipped to number 44, eased past local wild card Olivia Gadecki 6-3 6-1.
“Her ranking doesn’t talk about her level,” Kasatkina added. “I hope the crowd will be by my side, it’ll be a tough match.”
At least one player was enjoying the weather, Norwegian 11th seed Casper Ruud basking in the sunshine during a routine 6-1 6-3 6-1 win over Albert Ramos-Vinolas.
“It’s minus 20 back home, so it’s quite a change. It’s much nicer to be in the warm summer weather,” said Ruud, who lost in the second round in 2023.
“The body and tennis is feeling great. Hopefully I can have a good run down here. It’s been a couple years in a row where I wasn’t able to play as well as I hoped here. Hopefully 2024 we can turn that around.”
Holger Rune needed four sets and more than three hours to get the job done against Japan’s Yoshihito Nishioka as the Danish eighth seed wrapped up a 6-2 4-6 7-6(3) 6-4 victory.
Briton Jack Draper struggled in the heat and had his blood pressure checked midway through his 6-4 3-6 4-6 6-0 6-2 win over Marcos Giron, while compatriot and 19th seed Cameron Norrie beat Juan Pablo Varillas 6-4 6-4 6-2.
Czech 32nd seed Jiri Lehecka, fresh from winning his first title at the Adelaide International, continued his strong form Down Under, last year’s quarter-finalist cruising to a 6-3 6-2 6-3 victory over Spaniard Bernabe Zapata Miralles.
Grigor Dimitrov, another early 2024 title winner following his Brisbane success, rallied from a set down to defeat Marton Fucsovics 4-6 6-3 7-6(1) 6-2.
Double Australian Open champion Victoria Azarenka was also made to work hard by Italian Camila Giorgi before the 18th seed from Belarus prevailed 6-1 4-6 6-3.
“First round of a Grand Slam is always nerve wracking for me even though I’ve been playing pretty well,” said Azarenka. “I’m hoping to build from here.”