MELBOURNE AUSTRALIA － The Australian Open is known as the ‘Happy Slam’ – and also the one where the home crowds are happy to back their Aussie players, no matter who they’re facing.
Week one of Australian Open 2024 has proved no different, with Australian fans flocking in record numbers to the grounds of Melbourne Park to see their compatriots battle some of the biggest tennis stars in the world, including Yonex team members Casper Ruud (NOR) and Ben Shelton (USA) – among others.
How did those battles play out? Let’s find out.
Ruud wins hot game with cool mindset
Perhaps one of the most glorious aspects of tennis is when two players face off who have contrasting styles of play, which sometimes can bring out the best in them both. Three-time major runner-up Ruud vs. Australia’s Max Purcell was one of these match-ups, with Ruud's incredible speed and gigantic forehand challenged by the all-court guile and serve-and-volley acumen of Purcell.
With the roof on Margaret Court Arena closed due to rainy Melbourne weather outside, the medium-fast courts became lightening quick with lower bounces, allowing Purcell’s attacking style to flourish.
After trading the first four sets with the 11th-seeded Ruud, the final set made its way to a match tiebreak, the two players combining for a shocking 137 winners in 335 points played.
It was experience that prevailed for the 25-year-old Ruud, who avoided the second round banana peel that he slipped on a year ago: "I think maybe just the fact that I got a better start [in the tiebreak] than him helped,” Ruud said after. “I was up 7-2, and it kind of feels like the finish line is close... much closer than for him. It was good to get an early lead."
A final push from Purcell was too little, too late, with Ruud bouncing off an 8-7 scoreline to win a 15-shot rally on match point, prevailing in nearly four hours, 6-3, 6-7 (5), 6-3, 3-6, 7-6 (10-7).
Shelton returns to the scene of his climb
A year ago, Ben Shelton had only just gotten a passport for the first time in his life, crossing the Pacific Ocean from the U.S. to play abroad. The first stop: Australia – and the year’s first Grand Slam.
Shelton, then just 20, made the most of that maiden passport stamp, making a run to the quarter-finals on debut, bowing out to countryman Tommy Paul in the final eight.
A year later, Shelton returns to Melbourne as the 16th seed following his even more stunning run to the US Open semi-finals (where he’d beat Paul and another American, Frances Tiafoe), before winning his first ATP title in Tokyo in October.
Back again in 2024 with more experience (and passport stamps) to draw from, Shelton faced local Christopher O'Connell in round two, a journeyman who had taken on various side jobs, including cleaning boats, to fund his tennis career.
It was Shelton vs. not only O’Connell but also that aforementioned Australian crowd in a match that would go four sets. The experience for the American paid off, continuing his own Melbourne magic.
“That 'Aussie Aussie Aussie, Oi Oi Oi!' chant... I hear it when I sleep at night from last year to this year," a smiling Shelton said on court after.
But with a Grand Slam quarter- and semi-final already on his CV, what comes next for him? He certainly has big goals...
Teenager Noskova proves she’s one to watch
After she made the Adelaide final last year, Linda Noskova (CZE) crashed out in the first round of AO qualifying, mentally cooked from all the tennis she had played. But back this year, the 19-year-old has experience on her side – like Shelton – upsetting seeded countrywoman Marie Bouzkova in the first round and then backing that up with a one-hour, 53-minute triumph against wild card McCartney Kessler (USA), 6-3, 1-6, 6-4.
The next test for Linda? She will challenge world No. 1 Iga Swiatek (POL), the four-time major champ, for a spot in the fourth round.