By Nick Mulvenney
MELBOURNE (Reuters) – World number one Ash Barty made a stuttering start to her bid to end her country’s long wait for a homegrown Australian Open champion on Monday before calming the nerves of her compatriots with an emphatic 5-7 6-1 6-1 victory over Lesia Tsurenko.
After rain had washed out a big chunk of the day on the outer courts, it looked like Barty might serve up the dampest squib of a start to a tournament desperate for good news after a week of headlines about poor air quality.
The French Open champion had won her first WTA title on home soil at the Adelaide International on Saturday and local hopes were high that she might deliver a first Australian champion at the Grand Slam since Chris O’Neil in 1978.
She was brought crashing down to earth in the opening set, however, when Tsurenko, who won their only previous meeting in Brisbane in 2018, comfortably bridged the 119 spots that separate the two in the world rankings.
The Ukrainian, returning after an elbow injury cut short her 2019 season, gave up her own service twice but broke the top seed three times and made the most of Barty’s 19 unforced errors to stun the partisan crowd by taking the first set.
Barty, though, has made much of her ability to adjust to her opponents this season and took control of the contest, leveling up the score with a thumping ace before racing away with the deciding set.
“It’s all good,” she beamed to the relieved Rod Laver Arena crowd after the match.
“It’s amazing to be out here. Obviously, a tight turnaround after Adelaide but I sharpened up at the start of the second set and did what I needed to do.”
Barty next faces Swede Rebecca Peterson or Slovenia’s Polona Hercog, whose contest was one of the many to fall victim to the torrential rain that lashed Melbourne Park for much of the day.
Her second round tie is also certain to be on one of the main showcourts and Barty said that it was a thrill to play in front of her compatriots, however nervous they were after the first set.
“I felt comfortable knowing that I just needed to change a few things, to adjust, to try and bring the match back in my favor,” she added.
“I think the crowd was incredible. Certainly once I got a bit of a roll on, they became more and more influential.”
Barty knows that with every victory will come greater expectation but, reverting to the “we” she often uses to emphasize the importance of her support team, said she was just going to try to enjoy the experience.
“We’re loving it. We’re embracing it. There’s no other way to approach it,” she said.
“I think we’re just going along for the ride, trying to play some good tennis.”
(Reporting by Nick Mulvenney; Editing by Mark Trevelyan)