By Jonathan Barrett
MELBOURNE (Reuters) – Australia’s top-ranked male and female players, Alex de Minaur and Ashleigh Barty, won their respective second-round Australian Open matches on Wednesday, salvaging an otherwise difficult start to the tournament for the host nation’s best players.
Teenager De Minaur beat qualifier Henri Laaksonen 6-4 6-2 6-7 (7) 4-6 6-3 to set up a clash with second seed Rafa Nadal. Earlier in the day, Barty beat Wang Yafan 6-2 6-3 in a straight-forward affair, and will play Greece’s Maria Sakkari in the third round.
The pair carry the hopes of a nation at a tournament where Australians have had limited success despite boasting several Grand Slam singles champions like Samantha Stosur, Lleyton Hewitt and Pat Rafter since the 1990s.
No Australian man or woman has won the singles title at their home Grand Slam since the 1970s. The last women’s finalist was Wendy Turnbull in 1980, while Hewitt lost the 2005 final to Russia’s Marat Safin.
Local hopes have for several years largely rested on Stosur, Nick Kyrgios and Bernard Tomic, all of whom lost their first round matches this year.
The 15th-seeded Barty is the highest ranked local player — either man or woman — in the tournament and is known for her court craft and is an accomplished doubles player, while she has also played elite-level cricket.
“I felt like today was pretty clean, except for a couple of games where I got passive,” Barty told reporters after her match.
De Minaur, seeded 27, is on a seven-match winning streak, after winning the lead-up event in Sydney, although he faces a difficult match-up against 17-times Grand Slam champion Nadal who has already dispatched two of his countrymen.
“To be able to get all these wins under my belt definitely helps a lot, to build just that momentum and keep playing some good tennis day in, day out,” he said. “Obviously against Rafa that’s going to be something special.”
(Reporting by Jonathan Barrett in MELBOURNE; Editing by Greg Stutchbury and Christian Radnedge)