Eleven Australians were in action on the opening day of Australian Open qualifying at Melbourne Park on Monday, with six progressing to the second round.
[WC] Philip Sekulic (AUS) def Matthias Bachinger (GER) 6-4, 6-3
18-year-old Philip Sekulic was the first of six Aussie winners on Monday, booking his place in the second round of Australian Open qualifying with an impressive straight sets victory over seasoned German Matthias Bachinger - who has qualified at Melbourne Park twice previously and reached the second round of the main draw in 2015.
Sekulic served well, slamming down nine aces and winning 80% of points on his first serve to go with a whopping 26 winners in the one hour 19-minute affair.
“I’m happy to get the win. I thought I served really well today, I’m happy with my performance,” Sekulic said in his post-match media conference.
Despite competing in a major for the first time and being one of the youngest players in the draw, Sekulic is confident in his game and believes he is more than capable of competing at the level.
“I’m confident in my game. If I’m playing well, I know I can beat a lot of these guys, even though it’s a good level.”
The Aussie has been practising with World No. 4 Stefanos Tsitsipas in the lead up to his qualifying campaign and says it has helped him in his preparation for the tournament.
“I got a couple practice sessions in with Stefanos, which I think really helped me. He hits the ball really well. I was able to get in a good rhythm, those sessions really helped me.
When I’m hitting with him I get to hit lots of balls, if I’m hitting with him I get my eye in and it then helps when I'm playing.
Sekulic - rated as one of Australia’s top rising prospects is coached by former pro, Gavin van Peperzeel.
“He’s just starting to coach me this year. I’ve only been seeing him a couple of weeks. I really like working with him. He’s a bit younger so he can still hit really well, move, and train with me so I think it's good. I like having a laugh with him as well sometimes, we share a bit of banter which is good,” Sekulic exclaimed.
The 18-year-old faces World No. 180 Dmitry Popko in the second round of qualifying.
Max Purcell (AUS) def Evgeny Donskoy (RUS) 6-4, 6-2
Sydneysider Max Purcell became the first-ever winner on the brand new 5,000 seat Kia Arena at Melbourne Park on Monday morning.
“It’s for sure the best of the show courts. It looks really really good, I’m stoked to be the first person to play on it,” Purcell said in his post-match media conference.
Despite only converting on 3/16 break point opportunities, the 23-year-old eased his way into the second round of Australian Open qualifying with a comprehensive 6-4, 6-2 win over Russian Evgeny Donskoy in one hour and 31 minutes.
“Unfortunately it looked like Donskoy was a bit underdone. He tested positive [for COVID-19] before coming for ATP Cup, so he didn’t get much time on these courts getting used to these conditions, but I’ll take the win and get ready for the next round,” Purcell said.
Purcell, who had a remarkable second half of 2021 is widely considered extremely unlucky not to have received a wildcard into the main draw of the tournament. When asked by NewsCorp’s Marc McGowan in his post-match press conference how he felt, he wasn’t tight-lipped in his response.
“I’m surprised but it’s also expected,” Purcell stated.
“I’ve never been one of Lleyton’s [Hewitt] boys, so in the back of my mind, I’m always like I’m probably not going to get one. I’ve kind of had that expectation it doesn’t matter where I’m ranked, I’m probably not going to get it.”
The final call on wildcard recipients was left as late as possible by Hewitt and his fellow decision-makers at Tennis Australia, and it was a late-night text to Tennis Australia’s Performance Director - Wally Masur, that confirmed his fate.
“I actually was told I’d know on Thursday.
[On Thursday] I went on court to hit at 3:30 pm and the decision was made then but I hadn’t been told anything. I’m hearing whispers then in the Australian locker room from Lleyton saying something to Crabby [Jaymon Crabb]. Then at 11 o’clock at night, I message Wally [Masur] saying ‘mate, I’ve got three hours to pull out of Sydney otherwise I’ll be stuck playing Sydney instead of quallies. What’s going on?’ and he’s like ‘oh, Lleyton was supposed to tell you, I wasn’t supposed to tell you. I told him to tell you considering he was the one that didn’t want you to have it. So I didn’t end up finding out until 11 pm Thursday night because I guess he [Lleyton Hewitt] didn’t have the balls to tell me in person,” Purcell stated.
“I’m 176 in the world. I should be in qualifying anyway, I’m kind of taking it like that. No hard feelings I guess.”
The relationship between Purcell and Tennis Australia’s heavyweights has been on the rocks for a number of years now and is still that way despite an effort from Purcell’s coach Nathan Healey to fix it.
“I tried a little bit. I had my coach try and butter up the relationship a little bit. I asked a few questions, and look it just hasn’t really gone anywhere.
I just don’t know whether it's worth it, I just kind of let Lleyton do what he wants now and I’ll just do what I want. No real hard feelings, he’s just doing the best he can and I’m fine with it.”
The rift between Purcell and Hewitt began in the Sydneysider’s junior days.
“I’ve just been a bit of a smart arse throughout my junior career. I guess he [Hewitt] just took it a little bit too seriously,” Purcell said.
Next up, Purcell faces 18th seed Jiri Lehecka from the Czech Republic.
“I actually don’t know anything about this next guy I’m playing. I don’t even know what he looks like, to be honest. It's actually nice getting to play someone I don’t know, there’s no expectation.”
[WC] Dane Sweey (AUS) def Gregoire Barrere (FRA) 7-5, 6-3
Gritty 20-year-old Aussie Dane Sweeny booked his place in the second round of Australian Open qualifying with a hard-fought win over Frenchman Gregoire Barrere.
“I was pretty nervous going into it. I’m feeling relieved. Pretty proud of myself for the way I kept composed out there. I thought I did a great job to get myself out of some pretty sticky situations and overall just proud of myself,” Sweeny said in his post-match media conference.
Sweeny, whose game can be likened to that of Alex de Minaur’s chased down every ball and proved a pest for World No. 167 Barrere, prevailing in a one hour 27-minute arm-wrestle.
“I thought I could’ve played a lot better, I thought he also could’ve done the same. It was a battle of scrappy tennis but I think I was better in the bigger moments which got me over the line, so I’m pretty pumped with that.”
The Aussie won 79% of points on his first serve and hit just 23 unforced errors in comparison to Barrere’s 40.
[WC] Rinky Hijikata (AUS) def Mathias Bourgue (FRA) 6-3, 6-4
One of Australia’s most promising rising stars, Rinky Hijikata secured victory over 27-year-old Frenchman Mathias Bourgue, making his way into the second round of Australian Open qualifying.
“I’m feeling good. I felt ready to go today and I was pretty excited to play today. I had a game plan, stuck to it pretty well, served well today which was a big area of focus so all up pretty happy with the performance,” Hijikata said in his post-match media conference.
Hijikata whipped 21 winners past his French opponent and hit just 10 unforced errors in a classy performance on Kia Arena.
The Aussie won 83% of points on his first serve and didn’t face a break point in an impressive serving display.
The 20-year-old college student at The University of North Carolina qualified for his maiden ATP Tour main draw last week at the Melbourne Summer Set and looks comfortable competing on the ATP Tour.
“I feel like I’m a lot more comfortable at this level now. Maybe the last few years I’ve been coming out and it's a bit of a step up from the level I had been playing at. This time round feels really comfortable.
I feel like I’ve put in the work. Being able to do my pre-season in Sydney with guys like Thommo [Jordan Thompson], Vuks [Aleksandar Vukic], Demon [Alex de Minaur], Ocs [Christopher O’Connell], Maxy [Max Purcell], all those Sydney guys - that was really good for me. I think you can see us all pushing each other to get better. I'm feeling good,” Hijikata said.
World No. 12 Cameron Norrie, who shares a friendship with Dave Moore - Hijikata’s coach for the summer, was in the Aussie’s player box as he roared his way to victory.
“Dave Moore has been helping me out the summer. He’s been coaching me the whole pre-season. Moorey knows Cam really well and Cam’s just a great bloke, I was really appreciative that he came out today and gave me a little bit of support. I was really thankful for that.”
Next up, Hijikata will face No. 30 seed and former World No. 23 Damir Dzumhur.
As for his plans for the remainder of the year - the Aussie was planning on going back to play the college season, but impressive results so far this summer have put those plans up in the air.
“I was planning on going back, I guess I’ll reevaluate at the end of this tournament, but for now I’m just trying to focus on my performance here and try do as best as I can here. Either [I’ll] go back and play the season at UNC or if not I’ll probably try play as much as I can and try push to make the slam quallies throughout the year.”
[WC] Kimberly Birrell (AUS) def Marina Melnikova (RUS) 7-6(0), 3-6, 6-1
“I’m super happy. I’m super proud of the way I played and fought and I’m just really glad that I get to play again,” Birrell said in her post-match media conference.
The Aussie has suffered serious elbow injuries since reaching the third round of the Australian Open in 2019 but is hoping to put her injury woes behind her as she begins her comeback.
“I’m just super grateful to be back in this position. To have gotten a wildcard again, I wasn’t expecting it at all. I haven’t played that many matches since last year so I’m just going to enjoy every single moment, take it all in and fingers crossed this year is going to be better than last,”
“At the end of the day I just really want to have a long career, so I knew I needed to take a little bit of extra time, I took the time that I needed and now I’m ready to put my best foot forward.”
Birrell hit 22 winners in the encounter which lasted two hours and 32 minutes.
“I’m really proud of the way I fought,” Birrell exclaimed.
Jason Kubler (AUS) def Lorenzo Giustino (ITA) 3-6, 6-4, 6-0
The last Aussie in action on Monday, Jason Kubler overcame a slow start to take down Italian Lorenzo Giustino on Court 7.
The Aussie looked in strife as he fell a set behind Giustino, and at 4-4 in the second set was in danger of being broken, which would’ve made winning extremely difficult. But a major turnaround late in the second set saw Kubler, spurred on by a loud Aussie crowd win 21 points in a row, and eventually 28 out of 29 in a row - resulting in victory.
“t was weird! Middle of the second set I was getting pretty tired, so for the way the end of the match happened is kind of crazy looking back on it. I’m really happy to get through,” Kubler told The First Serve’s Jedd Zetzer.
In a true showing of Aussie spirit, fellow Australian players, coaches and close friends of the 28-year-old came out in numbers to show their support, which no doubt had an impact on the result.
“Having all the other Aussie guys there got me through it. The momentum for the first set and first half of the second set was in his favour. I didn’t feel like I could get into too many rallies, I felt like I was struggling to win service games easily. Once I got on a roll it felt like there was a team of Australians against one guy. I had three corners of the court covered with people that I'm close with so that was pretty cool,” Kubler said.
Fellow Australian Rinky Hijikata, who won his qualifying match earlier in the day was one of those in attendance, and Hijikata’s win, among those of other fellow Aussies, gave Kubler an extra injection of confidence heading into the contest.
“Today was really really good. I feel like most Aussies won today. For sure when other Aussies win it lifts the spirits of the group. Hopefully, we can keep it going tomorrow.”
Kubler will face No. 12 seed Tomas Martin Etcheverry in the second round of qualifying.
Fellow Australians Li Tu, Ellen Perez, Charlotte Kempenaers-Pocz, James McCabe and Alexandra Bozovic went down in their respective first-round qualifying matches.