O'Brien joins Baltacha in Melbourne second round

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The Independent Online

It is not an achievement that would cause the blink of an eyelid in most of the game’s major tennis-playing countries, but Britain will have two women in the second round of the Australian Open for the first time for 19 years after Katie O’Brien followed up Elena Baltacha’s success with victory here today.

O’Brien, the British No 2, beat Austria’s Patricia Mayr 6-3, 6-3 to reach the last 64 of a Grand Slam tournament for only the second time in her career. She now plays Jelena Jankovic, the world No 8, who beat Romania’s Monica Niculescu 6-4, 6-0.

The last occasion when two or more British women made the second round here was in 1991, when Jo Durie, Monique Javer and Clare Wood successfully cleared their first hurdles. Durie and Sara Gomer also made the second round of the French Open the following year, which was the last occasion that two British women went that far in a Grand Slam tournament outside of Wimbledon.

O’Brien’s only previous victory at a Grand Slam event had been at Wimbledon in 2007, when she beat Germany’s Sandra Kloesel in straight sets. The 23-year-old has taken her time moving up the tennis ladder, but her achievement here is the latest in a series of impressive results over the last year.

She broke into the world’s top 100 at the same time as Baltacha last September – O’Brien is now No 87 while Baltacha is No 83 – and, like her British rival, got into the main draw of a Grand Slam tournament through her ranking for the first time here.

“I think we spur each other on nicely,” O’Brien said. “I didn't see any of her match yesterday, but it was a great effort for her to come through. It gives me a nice boost, as well, to come through mine.”

“I think the work ethic among the British women is world-class at the moment. We're all absolutely working our socks off day in and day out.”

Mayr is ranked three places lower than O'Brien, but the 23-year-old Austrian was as high as No 70 last year. Although the weather – breezy, cool and mostly overcast – might have reminded O’Brien of a summer’s day back in her native Yorkshire, the conditions on Court Four were never easy. The gusting wind and occasional bursts of sunshine made serving from one end particularly difficult, while the noise from all around the court was a major challenge to concentration.

Court Four has three rows of seats on one side, standing room only on the other and none at either end. With a constant stream of passers-by and distracting crowd noise from other courts, it is like playing a match in the central reservation of a motorway.

The match had been held over from the opening day, when rain cut a swathe through the programme and left the players having to wait for the weather to clear. It was only at 10pm that O’Brien learned she would be first on Court Four 13 hours later.

Hitting the ball confidently throughout, O’Brien wore her opponent down with the sheer consistency of her hitting. It was a one-dimensional match, with both players rooted to the back of the court and never looking to vary the rallies with drop shots or approaches to the net. Neither had a big serve or a killer ground stroke, meaning that shot placement was crucial.

O’Brien broke serve twice to take the first set. Mayr broke in the third game of the second set, but O’Brien immediately replied in kind, thanks in part to two successive double faults by the Austrian.

Consistently outrallying her opponent, O’Brien broke again to take a 4-2 lead before suffering a momentary blip when she served poorly in the following game. Nevertheless, the Briton broke yet again, Mayr unluckily breaking a string on the final point. O’Brien served out for victory, which she greeted with a joyful leap into the air.

The win should see the British No 2 make further progress up the rankings list. “I'm very much aware I have a lot of points to defend in the first part of this year,” she said. “I knew I had to do well here. It's so important to get wins in a Grand Slam. There’s a big gulf between getting through that first round and beyond and losing in the first round.”

Victory also gave O’Brien more time to spend with her relatives here. She has two aunts and six cousins living in the city. “I really do feel at home in Melbourne,” she said. “I've got loads of relatives who I'm staying with this week. My sister is here with me as well. I've never done so well leading up to Melbourne, but I've always felt good coming here. I always really enjoy myself. I think this is just such a laid-back Grand Slam.”

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