Britain started the Australian Open with three men in the main draw of the singles for the first time for 13 years and with Heather Watson on the crest of a wave after winning her second singles title. By mid-afternoon on the second day, however, Andy Murray found himself in an all-too-familiar position as his country’s sole representative in either singles competition.
Watson, who had been celebrating the second title of her career in Hobart only three days earlier, sent for the doctor during her 6-4, 6-0 defeat by Tsvetana Pironkova, having felt under the weather for the previous 24 hours.
James Ward and Kyle Edmund, meanwhile, won only one set between them in losing first time out to Spain’s Fernando Verdasco and the American Steve Johnson respectively. Ward briefly raised hopes by taking the first set before losing 2-6, 6-0, 7-6, 6-3, while Edmund never got to grips with Johnson’s booming serve and went down 6-4, 6-4, 6-3.
Watson looked lethargic throughout and sent for the doctor when she trailed 5-2 in the opening set. The 22-year-old from Guernsey launched a brief revival on the resumption, recovering to trail 5-4, but then faded badly, losing the last seven games.
Having risen to a career-high No 38 in the world rankings after her victory in Hobart, Watson had hopes of a good run here. Pironkova, who now faces last year’s runner-up, Dominika Cibulkova, is a former Wimbledon semi-finalist, but in the first set the Bulgarian struggled at times to dominate even an ailing Watson.
“Yesterday I just kind of woke up not feeling that great,” Watson said after the match. “I was bloated and weak and not that good and I feel like that today as well. I just struggled on the court to have energy and against any player here you can’t be like that. It’s tough enough when you’re fit, let alone when you’re not.”
For Ward and Edmund it was a disappointing end to a tournament where they had both made significant breakthroughs. Ward was playing in a Grand Slam main draw by dint of his world ranking for the first time, while Edmund had battled through qualifying at a Grand Slam event for the first time.
Nevertheless the world rankings had always suggested that both Britons would have a struggle. Verdasco, the world No 33, and Johnson, the world No 38, were ranked 70 and 154 places respectively above their opponents.
Ward would have made his breakthrough into the world’s top 100 by beating Verdasco, but the 27-year-old Londoner was up against one of the biggest ball-strikers in the game. Verdasco started slowly, but from the second set onwards he struck the ball with great power. By the end he had cracked 54 winners to Ward’s 36.
The third set was crucial. Verdasco retrieved an early break of serve but in the tie-break Ward led 3-0 and then 5-4 with his two serves to follow. Ward’s netted forehand saw Verdasco level at 5-5 before the Briton created set point with a backhand winner down the line. Verdasco saved it with a service winner and went on to take the tie-break 8-6.
Ward was broken in the opening game of the fourth set but Verdasco was still made to work hard for his victory. The Briton’s final flourish came when he forced a break point as Verdasco served at 4-3, but the Spaniard held on and went on to close out victory after two hours and 42 minutes.
“It was a very high level from both of us and he said that to me at the end,” Ward said afterwards. “I had chances, especially at 5-4 and serving in the tie-break. I will go away and look at it again and if I am in the same position again try to do something a little different. It came down to one or two points.”
Edmund, who broke into the world’s top 200 at the end of last year, had trouble with Johnson’s serve throughout. The 20-year-old Briton played well enough when he got into the rallies but on Johnson’s serve in particular the points were punishingly short. Edmund had only one break point in the whole match, which Johnson saved when serving out for the first set.
“I really struggled to get on his serve today, especially towards the end of the second set and in the third,” Edmund said. “There wasn’t a lot of rhythm going on due to the fact that he was serving really well. It’s just something that I’ll have to take away and work on and use that as a stepping stone to get better.”