Popyrin digs deep for epic win, Barty makes welcome return, Novak happy no COVID backlash

Alexei Popyrin, Ash Barty, Australian Open 2023, featured, Tennis

Alexei Popyrin has credited the electric atmosphere in John Caine Arena and his new-found condition for pulling him through an epic midnight thriller at the Australian Open.

The Melbourne Park specialist lived up to the occasion once again in front of home fans to claim a stirring five-set first-round comeback victory over Taiwanese qualifier Chun-Hsin Tseng.

Stretching four hours and 27 minutes, the match started before 10pm on Tuesday night and finished at two minutes past two on Wednesday morning.

“I honestly couldn’t have done it without you guys. I know it’s a big cliche but honestly, 2am, I’m usually asleep for four hours at this time,” Popyrin told the diehard crowd after eking out a 4-6 7-6 (7-5) 6-7 (5-7) 7-6 (7-4) 6-1 win for the ages.

MELBOURNE, AUSTRALIA - JANUARY 17: Alexei Popyrin of Australia plays a backhand in their round one singles match against Chun-Hsin Tseng of Taiwan during day two of the 2023 Australian Open at Melbourne Park on January 17, 2023 in Melbourne, Australia. (Photo by Mackenzie Sweetnam/Getty Images)

Alexei Popyrin. (Photo by Mackenzie Sweetnam/Getty Images)

“I’ve never played a match this late, played a match this long, and to have you guys on my back really helped me with that win and really helped me physically go through the match.

“I’m a bit emotional, I feel a couple of tears coming right now. I don’t know why, I think the adrenaline is kicking in. I’m exhausted.”

Popyrin rocketed down 31 aces and clubbed 89 winners but could not shake his long-time former junior rival.

The 23-year-old could only convert two of 14 break points all night.

“I’ve never won a baseline game with him so I knew that wasn’t the way. I had to stay with my game, play big and hope for the best,” Popyrin said.

“That was a physical battle, and a mental battle too. I had to mentally try to stay in the match, having so many break points and only breaking twice.

“That was a physical battle in the end, in that fifth set, and the work that I did in the off-season this year is paying off.”

Popyrin’s reward is a shot at American eighth seed Taylor Fritz on Thursday as the Australian wildcard chases a berth in the third round of his home slam for a third time. 

Barty delights in return to Melbourne Park

Ash Barty has delighted tennis fans and children with a return to Melbourne Park to launch First Nations Day at the Australian Open.

A year after breaking the country’s near-half-century Australian Open singles title drought, Barty was back – not on Rod Laver Arena but the neighbouring Margaret Court Arena, hitting with the First Nations ballkid squad.

With no top-100-ranked locals in the 2023 Open singles draws, officials would have loved to have had Barty defending her crown.

Alas, the retired champion is blissfully pregnant and awaiting the birth of her first child this year with golfer-husband Garry Kissick.

The 26-year-old former world No.1 was chuffed to be back at the scene of her momentous final triumph over American Danielle Collins 12 months ago.

Barty was joined by her idol and mentor Evonne Goolagong Cawley to launch First Nations Day at Melbourne Park, a celebration of Indigenous art, culture and sport. 

“It’s so nice to be back here again,” said Barty, a proud Ngarigo woman. “To see plenty of good kids coming out, kids from all over the country.

“A day like today brings people together and I am happy to be here back on court hitting with yellow fluffy balls. It is few and far between these days.”

Goolagong Cawley, also a former world No.1 and a Wiradjuri woman, famously presented Barty with the Daphne Akhurst Memorial Cup on RLA last year.

Now mentoring Gold Coast prodigy Olivia Gadecki, Barty will no doubt be a keen observer when the 20-year-old wildcard plays Ukraine’s Marta Kostyuk in the Open’s second round later on Wednesday.  

Djokovic wins, delights in Open return

Nine-time Australian Open champion Novak Djokovic has enjoyed an adoring reception and shrugged off his lingering hamstring injury to mark his hotly-anticipated Melbourne Park return with an aggressive straight-sets victory 

Djokovic gradually cranked up the heat in his 6-3 6-4 6-0 first-round win over Spaniard Roberto Carballes Baenain a late-night clash at Rod Laver Arena on Tuesday, despite at times appearing bothered by his tight left hamstring.

But the Serbian great was delighted to report after his post-midnight finish both that his injury was improving and that he’d adored the warmth of the crowd’s reception.

“So much support. So much love. I mean, I could not ask for a better start of the tournament in terms of support, in terms of how I felt on the court,” he said.

Djokovic had heavy strapping on his hamstring, which has troubled him since the Adelaide International 1, and looked proppy at times. But after admitting to feeling tentative to start with, he then turned up the aggression, eventually ripping 41 winners.

“I was kind of testing my leg a little bit. At the beginning I was a bit tight, mentally as well, to protect something that was bothering me last 10 days. 

“So it took me a little bit of time to really get into the match and start moving more freely. The great sign was that the longer the match went, the better I felt, the better I moved.

“The leg is good. It’s not ideal, but it’s getting there. Today was a really good test.”

The crowd helped him too. Djokovic had admitted pre-tournament he was nervous about how he would be received in Melbourne in his first competitive match since last year’s deportation dramas.

But eyeing his 10th Melbourne Park crown, he need not have worried about the fans, who erupted when he entered Rod Laver Arena.

“Unbelievable atmosphere, thank you so much for staying this late everybody and also thanks for giving me such a welcoming reception I could only dream of,” he told them.

“I really feel very happy that I’m back in Australia and I’m back on the court where I had the biggest success in my career.

“Definitely this court is the most special in my life … so thanks for your support, I appreciate it.”

Djokovic had to work his way through the opening two sets, which he claimed in 42 and 56 minutes respectively, before reeling through the third in just 24 minutes.

“I’m very, very pleased with the way I played in the third set,” he said.

“I didn’t give him too much of a chance to breathe from back of the court and I served very well.

“Second set was going up and down but credit to him for fighting.”

The fourth seed is back at his favoured slam after last year’s deportation saga, when he had to leave Australia for not being vaccinated against COVID-19, and is eyeing drawing level with Rafael Nadal on 22 majors.

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