MELBOURNE, Jan 17 (Reuters) - The paucity of Australian success at Melbourne Park over the past four decades has not stopped tournament organisers from pushing local battlers onto centre court, invariably for a thumping loss.
On Friday, however, 120th-ranked wildcard Casey Dellacqua lived up to her Rod Laver Arena billing by reaching the fourth round, sending packed terraces of fans home with a warm, fuzzy and somewhat rare feeling.
The 28-year-old Dellacqua turned back the clock to upset a heat-affected Chinese Zheng Jie 6-2 6-4 in the afternoon.
Three hours into the evening session, she became the only Australian left in either of the men’s and women’s draws after 17th seed Sam Stosur was overhauled by former world number one Ana Ivanovic 6-7(8) 6-4 6-2.
Like the higher-profile Stosur, Dellacqua has struggled with huge expectations in the country that produced Rod Laver, Ken Rosewall and Lleyton Hewitt, since making the fourth round of the 2008 Australian Open.
That breakthrough was followed by serious shoulder injuries, surgeries and further setbacks over the next few years and the Perth-born doubles specialist has had to graft in the minor tours to earn ranking points for another shot at the big-time.
”It is tough. You’re worrying about money. You’re trying to survive each week,“ Dellacqua told reporters. ”There’s not a lot of money for players ranked from 150 to lesser.
“You’re paying for your hotel, nothing gets paid for, and you’re not making much money. But that’s what you do to get to these moments.”
For Stosur, who upset Serena Williams to win her one and only grand slam title at the 2011 U.S. Open, it was the same old story at Melbourne Park where she has never surpassed the fourth round and suffers annual bouts of stage-fright.
The muscular 29-year-old threw away a dominant early position and by the third set had stiffened up to the point where her legs almost refused to move.
Dellacqua, who next faces Canadian wunderkind Eugenie Bouchard, may struggle to make the quarter-finals, but the promise of a new generation of men’s players has left local tennis fans salivating.
Hewitt, the country’s last men’s grand slam winner who won the second of his two majors at Wimbledon in 2002, was dumped from the opening round along with the much-hyped 21-year-old Bernard Tomic.
Instead, it was two teenage wildcards in Nick Kyrgios and Thanasi Kokkinakis who were left flying the Australian flag in the second round and neither disgraced themselves in their exits.
Seventeen-year-old Kokkinakis, runner-up at the U.S. Open juniors and beaten by 18-year-old Kyrgios for the junior title at Melbourne Park last year, was well beaten by world number one Rafa Nadal but far from humiliated.
Kyrgios gave 27th-seeded Frenchman Benoit Paire a huge scare before succumbing in five sets as his legs cramped on a humid evening.
Australia’s Davis Cup captain Pat Rafter has forecast a big future for the players nicknamed the ‘Special Ks’, but also warned a hopeful public not to get too excited too early.
Kyrgios’s Twitter followers more than trebled within a day of his second round clash to surpass 14,000 and the rangy six-foot four (1.93 metre) talent was thrilled by the fervent support at Margaret Court Arena.
“A lot more experiences like that will help in the future. It was unbelievable,” he told Reuters at Melbourne Park, wearing a pair of chunky, pink headphones around his neck.
“I‘m not going to push the expectations down. I like having them and a bit of pressure. Just embrace it and keep working hard.” (Editing by Justin Palmer)