Exits, but some hope, for South and O'Brien

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The Independent Online

Mel South and Katie O'Brien had their first taste of a Grand Slam tournament outside of Wimbledon today and even though they lost in the first round of the Australian Open the two Britons could take heart from their experience.

South led Marion Bartoli, the 2007 Wimbledon runner-up, 4-1 in the second set before losing 6-2, 6-4, while O'Brien put up spirited resistance before going down 6-4, 6-4 to the Romanian Monica Niculescu.

The first Grand Slam tournament of the year opened under clear blue skies and in stifling heat, with the temperature approaching 35C. The lively atmosphere around Melbourne Park tested the concentration of O'Brien in particular. The 22-year-old was playing out on Court 10, where there was constant noise from spectators, passers-by and adjoining courts. South played on Court Three, one of the show courts, where the heat was especially oppressive.

On paper South had the toughest task of the four British women in the main draw, the largest contingent at an overseas Grand Slam event for 17 years. Bartoli is the world No 17 and had beaten South in their two previous completed encounters, though the Frenchwoman retired after only two games with a calf muscle injury when they met in Sydney last week.

Neither player could be described as a stylist, with both relying on the weight of their shots rather than their movement around the court. South hit 18 winners to Bartoli's 14, but the more telling statistics were her 34 unforced errors, compared with the Frenchwoman's 23, and her opponent's five breaks of serve. South made too many mistakes on her ground strokes, the ball at times flying off her racket with alarming unpredictability.

Having been outclassed in the first set, however, South made a contest of it from 0-1 down in the second. Two Bartoli double faults helped the Briton to break for a 2-1 lead, upon which she produced her best game of the match, winning four points in a row with a backhand winner, two thumping forehands and an ace. South broke again in the following game with some more sparkling play. From 30-30 she forced a backhand error with a fine return of serve and then took the game with a forehand cross-court winner.

At 4-1 up and two breaks of serve to the good the Briton looked set to take the match into a deciding set, but she then played a poor service game to let Bartoli back in. At 4-4 South had a break point after Bartoli double-faulted, but three successive backhand errors left her serving to stay in the match. South had another game point at 4-5, only to serve a double fault, and Bartoli eventually secured victory when the Briton netted another backhand.

South was disappointed with her performance. "I'd played her a couple of times before and I knew I could win the match today," she said. "I knew exactly how I should play against her, but I got broken way too many times. My serve is usually one of my strong points, but it wasn't today and the service game I played at 4-1 up in the second set was pretty terrible."

Nevertheless South can be pleased with her recent progress. She has been away from home for the last four months playing in Australia and the Far East, and has reached a career-high No 102 in the world rankings. "I've been working really hard and my game has definitely improved," she said. "I can play a lot better than I did today."

O'Brien was facing an opponent she described as "probably the most unorthodox player on the women's tour". Niculescu, ranked 109 places higher than her opponent at No 51 in the world, regularly throws sliced forehands into the mix, has one of the slowest second serves in the game and is never predictable. She is also an athletic and resolute defender who chases down shots many players would never reach. O'Brien found it difficult to finish points off and in the first set in particular made too many errors on her forehand.

Nevertheless the 22-year-old Briton had her chances and even fought back from 5-2 down in the final set before Niculescu closed out the match.

"I'm disappointed because I felt it was a very winnable match, even though she's No 51 in the world," O'Brien said afterwards. "I knew what I was in for. She gets success by frustrating her opponents and being a really good competitor. She defends better than a lot of players and moves really well. I was hitting the ball well, but finishing the points off was a problem.

"Because it was 15 degrees warmer than it was in the qualifying tournament the conditions were very different and I was over-hitting a bit because the balls were flying more. It was much warmer today, but I felt comfortable. If the match had gone to a third set I would have been ready for it. I think she was struggling more than I was because I was making her do most of the running. I think I would have been the stronger player in a third set."

Despite her disappointment, O'Brien added: "It's a good start to the year for me. It's the first time I've qualified for a Grand Slam tournament, so I can definitely be proud of myself."