After barely missing on a match point against eventual champion Li Na here at the Australian Open in 2014 and saving match points in two different encounters at Wimbledon last year, the Czech saved nine of them against Belgium’s Yanina Wickmayer in a 3-6 7-6 (9-7) 6-1 victory that overshadowed the punishing heat.
Safarova’s escape act in the first round tied the most known match points saved at a grand slam in the Open Era: Chanda Rubin pulled off the feat in 1995 at the French Open, Vincent Spadea did it in 2004 at Roland Garros and Nick Kyrgios added to the list in 2014 at Wimbledon.
“Actually when I was saving the match points, I thought about the match against Li,” Safarova, who erred on a backhand down the line against Li with the Chinese baseliner stranded in the third round affair, told reporters. “I was like, ‘I lost that one so I could get it back here.’ Like, fate.”
Temperatures reached the mid-30s Celsius (95 degrees Fahrenheit) Tuesday but the baking conditions won’t last, as Wednesday’s high is expected to fall to about 22 degrees, an indication of Melbourne’s unpredictable weather.
‘Saved,’ in this case, is indeed the apt word to describe the 61st-ranked Safarova’s play when under the severest of pressure.
She struck winners on the first seven match points she faced — five while serving at 5-6 in the second set — also forcing Wickmayer into a backhand error on the ninth.
Besides the nearly two handful of match points squandered, Wickmayer, No. 60, relinquished a 5-1 advantage in the tiebreak.
“If you didn’t see it you wouldn’t believe it,” Czech Fed Cup captain Petr Pala told CNN. “I didn’t see the whole match. I came in the middle of the second set but I think I saw everything.”
In a point that summed up the early afternoon for Wickmayer, the 2009 US Open semifinalist double faulted on Safarova’s lone set point in the second.
Reflecting on her intermittent rendezvous with match points, Safarova spared a thought for her crestfallen foe.
“As long as I win it feels great,” she said. “I can only imagine how Yanina is feeling. That’s the tough part about tennis. One player is always happy and the other is sad.”
Having survived, how the left-hander presumably would have loved to put her feet up, glanced at the draw and got a lower-ranked rival, perhaps a qualifier, in round two.
Instead her reward is a clash with one of the best players of all time, Serena Williams, in a rematch of the 2015 French Open finale on Thursday,
Williams looked sharp, minus a late hiccup, to fend off Belinda Bencic 6-4 6-3 in what was the most hyped first-round contest in the women’s draw. Bencic toppled the recently engaged American the last time they met in 2015 and only slipped outside the top 15 in the rankings thanks to injuries.
Rafael Nadal, who sat out the latter stages of 2016 with a wrist complaint, followed Williams on Rod Laver Arena and dispatched Florian Mayer — the German with the unorthodox game — 6-3 6-4 6-4. The 14-time grand slam winner didn’t face a break point.
Novak Djokovic, like Williams aiming for a seventh Australian Open crown, downed Fernando Verdasco 6-1 7-6 (7-4) 6-2 in the night session a week-and-a-half after the 2009 semifinalist held five match points on the Serb in Doha.
Meanwhile Ivo Karlovic hit a tournament record 75 aces in a five hour, 15-minute marathon against Horacio Zeballos, prevailing 6-7 (6-8) 3-6 7-5 6-2 22-20.
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Safarova has had her own issues physically.
Playing the finest tennis of her career in making the French Open final, several months later she contracted a bacterial infection which triggered reactive arthritis, she told the New York Times.
Finishing 2015 ranked ninth, Safarova missed last year’s Australian Open in the aftermath of her illness and concluded 2016 at 64th.
“She was playing the best tennis of her career and then suddenly got the virus and couldn’t play at all, nothing at all,” said Pala. “It was even worse than an injury.
“I’m happy she is trying to get back. I know the ranking is not there but if she stays healthy I think the ranking is going to be okay.”
Her harsh tumble from the top 10 might have made her a sentimental favorite but Safarova was already well thought of. She was so well liked that Canadian sports network TSN produced a spoofed segment in 2015 in which Safarova was cast as a villain.
Defeating Williams would truly signal Safarova’s revival and she wasn’t daunted at the prospect of challenging the 22-time grand slam winner.
Safarova drew on the fact that Williams hasn’t played much tennis of late: Three matches, to be precise, since exiting in the US Open semifinals in September to Safarova’s compatriot, Karolina Pliskova. And in that French Open final, Safarova led by a break in the third.
It’s not, however, like Williams appeared rusty against Bencic. It was a far cry from the Williams who imploded in windy Auckland two weeks ago, striking 88 unforced errors in losing to Madison Brengle.
Bencic’s lone window surfaced when she reduced a 5-0 deficit in the second to 5-3, even earning a break point to get back on serve.
“I made a few errors on some key points, but for the most part, I still was going for everything and I was able to close it out,” Williams told reporters.
Safarova closed it out, too, albeit after considerably more drama.