Australian Open: Alcaraz Makes A Happy Return To The Happy Slam

Carlos Alcaraz (photo: Australian Open video)

MELBOURNE/WASHINGTON, January 16, 2024 (by Michael Dickens)

World No. 2 Carlos Alcaraz made his long-awaited return to the Australian Open a successful one. The personable, 20-year-old Spaniard, who missed last year’s Happy Slam due to an injury, was given a featured slot in Tuesday’s night session on Rod Laver Arena in his 2024 season debut. The crowd had Alcaraz’s back and he was eager to please his legion of fans, many whom were saving Spanish flags.

By the time Alcaraz wrapped up his two-hour, 22-minute victory over No. 76 Richard Gasquet, just about everyone was happy about the outcome except for the 37-year-old Frenchman with the majestic one-fisted backhand. That’s because Gasquet has now lost in the opening round at Melbourne six times in his 17 career appearances dating back to 2003. As Gasquet departed to much applause from the appreciative crowd of 15,000, one had to wonder if it was form the last time.

Alcaraz was challenged in the opening set by Gasquet, but after prevailing in the first-set tie-break, the No. 2 seed raced to a 7-6 (5), 6-1, 6-2 victory. Next, Alcaraz will oppose No. 46 Lorenzo Sonego of Italy, who was a 4-6, 7-6 (8), 6-2, 7-6 (4) winner over Great Britain’s Daniel Evans, ranked 40th, in the second round.

Making his third appearance in Melbourne, with hopes of improving upon his second-round finish in 2021 and third round in 2023, Alcaraz was in a good mood after his victory.

“It’s always great to play here in Australia,” he told John McEnroe in his on-court interview. “This is the third time that I’m playing here. I didn’t have a good run the years that I played here, but I enjoyed it a lot and I missed it last year. Today I felt really good, playing here and I enjoyed in front of the crowd. 

“I tried to get better. I think in the first set I struggled a little bit with his game and Richard was playing great as well. Every set, I played better and better, and in the end I think I played quite a good level.”

By the end, Alcaraz finished with 53 winners to 19 for Gasquet, who also committed 28 unforced errors. He broke his opponent’s serve four times in 16 opportunities and outpointed Gasquet 121-90.

“Obviously, Richard is a great player but I’ve got to say, he’s an even better person,” Alcaraz said, praising the 16-time ATP Tour champion. “He has a lot of talent; his backhand is crazy. The way that he hit his backhand [today], it was great to play against him.”

Rybakina comes through in the clutch to beat Pliskova, advances

Last year’s Melbourne runner-up, Elena Rybakina, is off to a fantastic start to the new season. Two weeks ago, she routed 2023 AO champion Aryna Sabalenka, 6-0, 6-3, to win her sixth career title in Brisbane. With her latest victory, a 7-6 (6), 6-3 win over two-time major finalist Karolina Pliskova of the Czech Republic, the Russian-born Rybakina, who represents Kazakhstan, is now 7-1 in 2024.

“In Brisbane I started really well,” the 24-year-old Rybakina, who is ranked No. 3,  said in her news conference, “There, I think the conditions were pretty good for me. Was really happy with the title. I knew it’s just the beginning. Every day is different, so I just need to keep on working.”

Rybakina saved three set points in the first-set tie-break to improve her career head-to-head record to 4-0 against the Czech star. She now is 3-0 in tie-breaks versus Pliskova to go along with 8-0 in sets.

“It was really tough match. Especially against Karolina, it’s always not easy,” said Rybakina, who will face No. 57 Anna Blinkova of Russia in the second round. “She has very big serves. Today I think her percentage of the first serve was pretty high, so it was not easy, especially the tiebreak.

“Yeah, I’m just happy in the end managed to win the first set. The second was a bit easier. But still, I think it’s a good win, especially for the first round.”

Zverev wins all-German battle over Koepfer

World No. 6 Alexander Zverev downed fellow German Dominik Koepfer, 4-6, 6-3, 7-6 (3), 6-3, on Margaret Court Arena Tuesday evening to add to his recent success in leading Germany to the United Cup title.

Zverev slammed 50 winners, including 18 aces, and improved to 5-1 for the 2024 season. He is 3-0 lifetime against the 61st-ranked Koepfer.

“In the beginning I wasn’t playing my best,” Zverev said in his on-court interview that followed his three-hour, 12-minute win. “I think I had a great tournament at the United Cupin Sydney, but then it is obviously very different coming here to Melbourne and playing at a Grand Slam. 

“Especially in the first few rounds it is never easy, but you have to focus on yourself, focus on your own shots and focus on finding your rhythm somehow, and I did.”

The 26-year-old Zverev, who earlier in the day learned he will go on public trial in May in Germany after being accused of physically abusing his ex-girlfriend, Brenda Patea – charges he denies – is looking to better his 2020 semifinal run in Melbourne. Next, he will take on 163rd-ranked Slovakian qualifier Lukas Klein who earlier defeated Soonwoo Kwon of South Korea, 7-6 (0), 4-6, 7-6 (3), 6-3.

Around Melbourne Park

Tuesday’s Australian Open results

Wednesday’s Australian Open order of play 

By the numbers

Record-setting crowds continue to pour into Melbourne Park for Australian Open 2024. Tuesday’s Day 3 drew 46,009 for the day session and 33,495 for the night session for a total of 79,504. The night session set an attendance record for the Firt Tuesday, breaking the previous record of 29,875 set in 2023.

“Quotable …”

“I think it’s stupid, to be honest. No offense. I think it’s nothing to do with that. I think Novak could do ten Netflix series and still win 20 Grand Slams or 24. It’s really something that it’s not about that.

“I think Sabalenka did a few already, and she won Australian Open last year.”

— Denmark’s Holger Rune, who is featured in the second series of the Netflix series “Break Point,” during his post-match news conference after defeating No. 61  Yoshihito Nishioka of Japan, 6-2, 4-6, 7-6 (3), 6-4. The World No. 8 Rune downplayed the idea that there’s a Netflix curse among the players who have been focused upon in the series.