Fans were treated to an intoxicating line-up at “A Day At The Drive”, a high-profile tennis exhibition in Adelaide. The event gave top players a chance to get some match practice in before the ATP Cup next week. For spectators, it was a rare chance to enjoy some live tennis, with mask-less crowds almost filling the stands.
With top players such as Novak Djokovic, Serena Williams and Rafael Nadal in action, we take a look at their form and how each of their matches panned out.
A Day At The Drive 2021: Day Session
Filip Krajinovic/Novak Djokovic bt. Jannik Sinner 6-3 6-3
Novak Djokovic, the reigning Australian Open champion, was due to play Jannik Sinner, the young Italian sensation, in the first match of the day session in Adelaide. Unfortunately for fans, a blister on Djokovic’s right-hand forced him to pull out so the crowd had to settle for Djokovic’s hitting partner, Filip Krajinovic.
Determined not to let the crowd down, Krajinovic played solid tennis throughout the first set, showing off his backhand in particular. On the other hand, Sinner struggled to get going, finding with the odd flash of brilliance but not finding his range in the forecourt. A tidy performance resulted in Krajinovic winning the set 6-3.
As Krajinovic walked off court, the man to beat Down Under was waiting in the wings to greet his friend. Djokovic strolled on court to rapturous applause. Seemingly undeterred by his injury, Djokovic was set to play the entirety of the second set.
He did not miss a beat. Without a warm-up, the first rally between the two was 17 shots long. Djokovic continued at this level throughout, raising the pace of the match and raising Sinner’s level too. Despite the Italian’s efforts, Djokovic looks to be in as imperious a mood as ever in Australia. Worryingly for his opponents, his return of serve was the star of the show.
In his on-court interview, Djokovic talked about potentially not being able to play. “I had to get treatment with my physio, I wasn’t feeling my best the last couple of days… You learn over the years to play with the pain… [I have to determine] whether that pain is bearable or not… The emotion was strong in me to come out on the court today seeing almost full stands. I had to play – that’s it, I had to play”.
Serena Williams bt. Naomi Osaka 6-2 2-6 1-0 [10-7]
In a rematch of their infamous 2018 US Open final, Serena Williams and Naomi Osaka were scheduled to play immediately after Djokovic and Sinner.
The two players will likely not be filled with confidence by their respective performances. For the first set, both players looked out of sorts, with Osaka in particular struggling to control Williams’ serve. The level of play upped in the second set and the match tiebreak but neither of the two ever settled in to the standard of play they were looking for. Williams took the match in the end as the strength of her serve took her over the line.
Despite their rustiness, they were all smiles and were happy to be out there. In the on-court interview, Williams said: “We haven’t played in front of a crowd in over a year… So happy just to be here.”
A Day At The Drive 2021: Night Session
Rafael Nadal bt. Dominic Thiem 7-5 6-4
In the evening, Rafael Nadal and Dominic Thiem arrived ready to knock the fluff off the tennis balls. Nadal had lost their previous two meetings, including one in Australia last year, and though this was an exhibition event, Nadal was as keen as ever to avenge his losses.
Both players looked sharp from the get-go. Thiem hit some absolute scorchers but Nadal had the edge throughout the match, playing high-percentage offensive tennis sublimely. In the end, Thiem blinked on one too many shots and gave Nadal the opportunity to close out both sets, clinching a close contest.
In the on-court interview, Nadal put the pandemic first. “It’s been a very hard year for all the world in general… Australia is a positive example of the right way to control the pandemic.”
In characteristically modest fashion, Nadal went on to downplay his chances in Melbourne. “I hope to have the right preparation for the Australian Open, I won there in 2009… I think almost everybody forget about that.”
Halep bt. Barty 3-6 6-1 1-0 [10-8]
The final match of the day saw the current WTA #1 Ashleigh Barty pitted against Simona Halep.
Both were playing at a high level through, commendably Barty who is coming back from 12 months away from the sport. By using ample variation on the backhand, Barty kept Halep off-balance on the important points to take the first set 6-3.
Halep tightened up her game in the second set, hitting four unforced errors throughout. It was too much for Barty as the wheels came off, hitting her own tally of 16 unforced errors, Halep winning the set 6-1.
The match tiebreak could have gone either way, though Halep took the initiative and stole a point from the Aussie with some stellar defensive play to move ahead 9-8. She sealed it on the next point.
Both women played fantastically well, especially given the pressure of playing in front of a crowd for the first time in ages. Halep touched on this: “Wonderful to be back here in Adelaide… Gonna be a great fight always when I play against [Barty]… I was very nervous, felt like it’s first time playing a match.”
On coming back after 12 months, Barty said: “I’ve done it once before so I’ve had a little practice… chipping away, trying to do the best I can every day”.
Going into the Australian Open
Williams and Osaka will be looking to up their games going into the first Slam of the year. Nadal and Thiem should be glad they were so fresh in their first matches back, whilst Djokovic will be brimming with confidence going into his favourite tournament. Halep overcame her nerves to play at a very high-level, whilst Barty can only be happy with her performance given her time away from the tour.
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