Winning your first Grand Slam match outside your own country is a big moment for any player. For Katie Boulter it prompted a double celebration as the 22-year-old Briton beat Ekaterina Makarova 6-0, 4-6, 7-6 here today in the first round of the Australian Open.
The first outburst of joy was premature, however, as Boulter fist-pumped in celebration at going 7-4 up in the deciding tie-break, only to realise that she had forgotten the new rules for final sets here, which are now won by the first player to 10 points. It was to Boulter’s credit that she recovered her composure to go on and take the tie-break 10-6.
“I was in the moment and I kind of forgot that it was first to 10,”the world No 97 admitted afterwards. “I think it’s very tough to turn around, because you’ve just released and you think you’ve won the match, to get back to work and find a way. I thought I did that really well and I am pretty proud of myself for digging deep.
“I've got to take it light-heartedly. I ended up getting the win. I probably would have been really devastated had I not. A couple of people have mentioned it to me [in phone messages] and I can laugh it off now, but at least I know the rule, so it definitely won’t happen again.”
Boulter, the first player to win a match under the new rules for this tournament, will now take on Aryna Sabalenka, who is seen by many as a dark horse for the title here.
Although Makarova is ranked only 37 places higher than Boulter, the 30-year-old Russian is one of the game’s most experienced players. She is a proven performer at the highest level who often reserves her best performances for Grand Slam tournaments.
Makarova is playing in her 46th successive Grand Slam event, having not missed any since making her debut at the US Open in 2007, and has a particularly good record here. She reached the semi-finals four years ago, made the quarter-finals on two other occasions and includes Serena and Venus Williams, Caroline Wozniacki, Simona Halep, Angelique Kerber and Simona Halep among her victims at Melbourne Park.
However, Makarova could barely put a ball in court as Boulter, hitting the ball cleanly from the start, sped through the first set, making just three unforced errors to the Russian’s 15.
From the start of the second set, however, Makarova upped her game. The Russian broke serve to lead 4-2 courtesy of two successive forehand errors by Boulter, only for the Briton to break back immediately with some bold attacking play. Serving at 4-5, Boulter was broken to love as Makarova took the match into a third set.
The decider was tense throughout and featured some pulsating rallies, with both women thumping big shots from the baseline. At 3-3 Makarova saved four break points in a game of eight deuces and in the following game it was Boulter’s turn to cling on, saving two break points.
Boulter had been setting the pace for most of the match and flew out of the blocks in the tie-break to take a 5-0 lead. Makarova reduced the arrears to 5-4, only for Boulter to win the next two points and begin celebrating before realising that the match was not over.
When the Briton missed backhands on the next two points it seemed that her embarrassment might be even more acute, but Makarova then made a backhand error before Boulter went to match point with her sixth ace of the match. She completed her victory with a forehand winner.
Boulter said afterwards that she had been fully aware before the match about the new tie-break rules but had not heard the umpire reminding the players about them at 6-6.
“It’s tough to say what’s going through your mind at that point,” she said. “I am so fully focussed on everything that I am doing and staying in the process that it’s very difficult to think about that, as it’s a new rule.”
Boulter said that earning a place in the main draw by dint of her world ranking had given her confidence here. “My expectations were just to enjoy the moment,” she said. “I’ve focused really hard on just relaxing through the shot and trying to play my way. I think I did that really well out there today.”
She added: “I put in so much hard work last year to get to this point that I just wanted to have fun out there and compete and do the best that I could.”
Having had health issues in the past, Boulter was pleased to have got through a physically demanding match in such style. “I’ve come a long way with that,” she said. “I actually cramped last year. I just wanted to get through a match. I knew it was at a high quality level and I was going to have to fight for it. I think I stayed pretty calm and my body held up really well.”
Sabalenka, Boulter’s next opponent, beat Russia’s Anna Kalinskaya 6-1, 6-4. The 20-year-old from Belarus, who is a formidable ball-striker, began last year ranked No 66 in the world but is now up to No 11. She got her season off to a flying start by winning the title in Brisbane the week before last.
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