Queenslander Kim Birrell has put a horror run of injuries behind her with a pulsating 3-6, 7-6, 6-1 victory over 31st seed and 2022 quarterfinalist Kaia Kanepi to claim her first singles victory at a Grand Slam since 2019.
The Estonian served for the contest at 5-4 in the second but Birrell showed steely resolve to break back in style before taking a gutsy tiebreak and forcing a decider.
From there on the Melbourne Park crowd was at its raucous best, willing the wildcard home with a wet sail in the third.
The 24-year-old has been plagued by a plethora of injuries in recent years, being ranked at 740 when the 2022 season commenced. Following the Australian Open she will be at a career-high inside the top 150.
Birrell considered giving the sport away throughout her rehab and even commenced a communications degree throughout, but it is all on hold for the time being.
“I guess I've always been an ambitious person, so I guess I had to really think at the end of 2021 whether I thought I could get back on the court, but I just wasn't sure how well I could play with not being able to serve at 100%. That was what I was really struggling with,” Birrell said.
“I had to think really hard about whether it would be worth it playing and knowing that I wouldn't be at my best.
“My mum is a schoolteacher, so she always pushed my brother and I to be educated and never stop learning. So I study communications at Griffith University and I have put that on pause a couple of times, but when I've been injured it's been really great to have something else to think about.”
Kanepi was at her consistent best in the opening stanza, netting just seven unforced errors to Birrell’s 21, allowing her to claim the ascendancy in the contest.
However, the Estonian’s form slumped as she hit 35 in the next two sets combined compared to the Australian’s 17.
After spending an abundance of time on the ITF circuit in 2022, even extending as far as Tunisia, Birrell notes the pleasure of participating in a Grand Slam after enduring the not-so-glamorous tennis life for portions of the year just gone.
“We still get looked after quite well. It's just that all the flights and everything is becoming so expensive, and the prize money isn't very high,
“So I guess that's one of the downfalls. But yeah, I had my birthday in Tunisia this year. They bought me a cake and everything. It wasn't too bad,” she added.
“There's nothing like playing at a Grand Slam.
“Because I had my protected ranking last year, I was playing a big mix of 15Ks and 25Ks, and then I would go to a WTA where I really got to see the difference in terms of the hotels and physios and those kinds of things
“I definitely hope I can maintain this type of level.”
In 2019 a then 20-year-old Birrell stunned the world with a scintillating run to the third round at Melbourne Park, with many looking to her as the next big thing.
Since her second round win over Donna Vekic that year, she has endured a 1,462-day wait for another taste of glory at a major.
Marking the end of the drought by defeating a seeded player makes the result even more gargantuan as she hopes she can put her injuries behind her and enjoy a full year around on tour.
“Yeah, that's a long time but I haven't really thought too much in that way and honestly, my priority was just to get back on court and be pain-free,” she said.
“I'm so happy that I've done that, and I played so many matches last year, and I knew that I was starting to find it at the end of last year.
“Just take it one match at a time. And I feel so happy to be back playing at this level at a slam again.”
Birrell will take on Czech wunderkind Linda Fruhrvirtova in the second round after the 17-year-old overcame Australia’s Jaimee Fourlis 6-0, 6-4.