The first balls of the Australian summer were hit by a star-studded cast assembled in Adelaide for A Day at the Drive, and despite the unprecedented times, some familiarity ensued, with Serena Williams and Novak Djokovic among the winners on Friday afternoon.
Williams, 23-time major winner, won a blockbuster clash against reigning US Open champion Naomi Osaka in the first of the women’s singles matches.
It followed a victory to the Serbian duo of Djokovic and Filip Krajinovic, who each played a set in a 6-3 6-3 win over Italian rising star Jannik Sinner.
The action continues tonight in Adelaide, with Rafael Nadal and Dominic Thiem going head-to-head before a clash between the world’s top two women Ash Barty and Simona Halep.
But perhaps the overriding takeaway from the day’s play was the joy the players clearly derived from competing for the first time in months, in front of crowds, in one of their favourite parts of the world – and the similar joy fans experienced witnessing the sport’s superstars up close at Memorial Drive.
“Honestly, we haven’t played in front a crowd in over a year. So this is really cool,” Williams said after her 6-2 2-6 [10-7] win over Osaka.
“And then for having us, and trusting us with your laws, was great – we were so happy just to be here, and now it’s worth it.”
The festivities were dealt a blow before the first ball was struck when it emerged that Djokovic would have to withdraw from his match against Sinner after developing blisters on his playing hand.
Krajinovic, Djokovic’s practice partner in Adelaide, stood in for the world No.1 and played brilliantly, breaking early in the first set as Sinner struggled slightly with his range and timing.
After Krajinovic pocketed the first set, Djokovic appeared courtside – drawing huge cheers from the crowd – and took over from his compatriot in the second set, to see how his hand would hold up.
Despite a large, nasty-looking blister on his lower right palm, Djokovic played through the discomfort – and did so brilliantly.
“The emotion was strong in me to come out on the court today, seeing almost full stands. I just had to play. That’s it, I had to play,” smiled Djokovic, whose last trip to Adelaide came 14 years ago when he won the ATP title at Memorial Drive in 2007.
“Thank you so much for coming out and making our day, and making our year! I appreciate everyone’s love and passion for this sport.”
Following them on to court were Williams and Osaka, arguably the two biggest stars in women’s tennis.
Williams played an impressively clean opening set – finishing with twice as many winners as errors – while it was anything but for Osaka, who lacked rhythm and misfired on serve.
But the Japanese loosened up in the second set, unloading on several forehands to break in the opening game and wrest control of the momentum.
A match tiebreak was required to decide the outcome, with Williams ultimately more secure and steady.