MELBOURNE, Jan 14 (Reuters) - A nervous Sam Stosur survived the first test of her annual battle with stage-fright at the Australian Open, but the spotlight is set to focus on the ninth seed after all of her compatriots were dumped from the first round on Monday.
Australia’s hopes of a home-bred champion at the year’s first grand slam have gone unfulfilled for 34 years and, with Lleyton Hewitt crashing out against eighth seed Janko Tipsarevic late in the evening, appeared set for further frustration.
The ageing former world number one’s loss made it eight out of nine local entrants sent packing on day one, leaving Australian flags sagging and a raucous local crowd at Rod Laver Arena deflated.
The burden of expectation has been Stosur’s cross to bear in recent years, but the former U.S. Open champion has struggled, never passing the fourth round at her home grand slam.
A repeat of last year’s disastrous first-round exit was fresh on the minds of the centre court crowd as the 28-year-old strode into Rod Laver Arena and promptly stumbled to give up an early break to Taiwan’s plucky Chang Kai-Chen.
Bundled out of both of her warm-up tournaments in Brisbane and Sydney at the first hurdle, Stosur’s shoulders were tight and her serve askew before she composed herself with a dominant 7-3 win in the tiebreak before closing out the match 7-6 6-3.
In the lead up to the year’s first grand slam, Stosur had, as always, taken care to avoid reading local newspapers, where dissections of her state of mind are an annual feature at the start of the season.
Had she tuned into the nightly news, she would have found Australia’s relief in her flighty first-round passage reflected in the lead item on at least one of the major local networks.
“Obviously I feel very happy, a little bit relieved, and, yeah, just nice to get through that first round - finally,” Stosur told reporters.
“No matter how good or bad you play, a win always makes you feel better.”
Where Stosur has wrestled with mental demons, former world number one Hewitt has railed against his ageing, battle-scarred body, relying on grit and determination to drag himself into his 17th consecutive Australian Open.
Hewitt has been under the knife five times in the past four years, and spent last year’s tournament taking pain-killing injections for a grisly toe injury in a gallant run to the fourth round.
“Maybe I just love punishment,” the father-of-three said last week at the warm-up Kooyong Classic in Melbourne.
No amount of sheer bloody-mindedness was to dislodge Serbia’s Tipsarevic, who was ready and willing to be dragged into a street fight, and enjoyed silencing the crowd on the way to a clinical 7-6 7-5 6-3 victory.
“I gave 100 percent,” Hewitt said truthfully, having shown flashes of his former brilliance and his usual fist-pumping swagger in the three-hour slog.
“I was pretty happy with my ball-striking, just frustrated with the result.”
The next generation of young Australian talents challenged their opponents at times on the minor courts, but all fell by the wayside, leaving ranks of yellow-clad fans heading to the exits deflated and muttering about missed chances.
Young talent Bernard Tomic’s lead-up form, winning his first ATP tournament at the Sydney International, has raised hopes in Australia of a successor to two-time grand slam champion Hewitt.
But the 20-year-old, who plays his opener on Tuesday against Argentina’s Leonardo Mayer, is likely to face mission impossible against Roger Federer in the third round, should both progress that far.
Hewitt’s post-match reaction would have been shared by many of the locals on the opening day at Melbourne Park, where the last home winner was women’s champion Chris O‘Neil in 1978.
“Obviously it’s so soon after the match. But, you know, frustration, disappointment,” he said. “They’re obviously the first feelings.” (Editing by Toby Davis)