MELBOURNE, Australia – Extreme heat is definitely a great equalizer.
But a truly dominant player or two has yet to emerge in the absence of Serena Williams.
So at this Australian Open, and perhaps at every major event going forward, this may be what it’s like on the women’s side from now on.
Different players by the final weekend, shocking upsets here and there, a lot of uncertainty and anticipation. And a bunch of new faces.
Thursday, in the second round, two more top players fell short of making the second week.
Wimbledon champion Garbiñe Muguruza of Spain, and No. 9 seed Johanna Konta of Great Britain, both were eliminated in straight sets.
Lucky loser and doubles star
Both were shockers in their own way.
Muguruza went out 7-6 (1) 6-4 to Hsieh Su-Wei of Taipei, more known as a doubles specialist and a player with good wheels and a flat, tricky game.
Konta lost to the luckiest loser, Bernarda Pera of New Jersey via Croatia.
Both came in straight sets in the intense heat.
“She’s definitely a very tricky opponent, and even more if she plays well. I think today she played well,” Muguruza said. “I maybe could have done things better, but at the end, she deserves to win. That’s really it.”
At issue for the Spaniard is a string of injuries – nothing major, nothing to keep her off the court for extended periods. But one thing after another just the same.
Late start, rocky run
Muguruza was delayed a day arriving at Brisbane to open her season. As it was, she wasn’t giving herself any extra time to acclimate to the extreme Australian summer conditions. And then she went into a full body cramp in her first match, against Aleksandra Krunic, and had to retire.
Muguruza then took a wild card into the Sydney event and won her first match. But then she withdrew before a potential quarterfinal against Daria Gavrilova to take care of an adductor strain that had been bothering her since she arrived.
It’s not the way she’d want to start the season. And the same could be said for Konta.
The Brit took on a new coach, Michael Joyce, to start the season after a foot injury scuttled the end of 2017.
But she, too retired in her season-opener in Brisbane, with a hip injury, in the quarterfinals. She then lost in the first round of Sydney to Agnieszka Radwanska.
Konta short on matches after foot injury
Konta was a quarterfinalist in Melbourne a year ago, and a semifinalist in 2016.
She looked good in her first-round win over American Madison Brengle. But then, against the lucky loser Pera, it wasn’t to be.
The lack of volume of matches in recent months, Konta said, got to her more than any of the weather conditions.
“I think you obviously look to keep improving your game through training and your physicality through, you know, training, but to being match fit and having that feel in points and feel in the way match flows and kind of that almost not thinking about kind of belief in, you know, what you do in certain points, that comes with matches,” Konta said. “That comes with volume of matches. Yeah. And also coming through tough matches.”
For Pera, 23, the rise has been gradual. She moved to the US from Croatia when she was 16, settling in New Jersey (her father is an American citizen). But recently, she has been spending a lot more time in Croatia, with her childhood coach. And after four or five years bouncing around the ITF circuit, she stood at a career-best No. 123 coming in.
Still, Pera lost in two quick sets to the No. 4 seed in the qualifying, Viktorija Golubic of Switzerland (she was seeded No. 14).
But with the withdrawal of Margarita Gasparyan late in the game, after she’d already been looking at flights home, Pera was in. She’s in the third round, one victory away from moving into the top 90 and not having to worry about qualifying at the other Grand Slams this season.
She also already has earned nearly $114,000 US. For a player who took part in one WTA Tour main-draw match in 2017 (at the International level), that’s big.
Hsieh’s shining Slam moments
For Hsieh, a 32-year-old, doubles has been the breadwinner. But she’s had her moments. She spent a few weeks in the top-30 in singles five years ago. And she was a feel-good story at the French Open last year, when she upset Konta in the first round before bowing out 9-7 in the third set to home-country favorite Caroline Garcia.
For Pera, the next opponent will be the No. 20 seed Barbora Strycova of the Czech Republic.
For Hsieh, next up is No. 26 seed Agnieszka Radwanska.
Other top players such as Venus Williams and Sloane Stephens were out early. So the third round of the women’s event doesn’t look much like it was drawn up on paper.
Here’s what it was, and what it now is – including three qualifiers in the bottom half of the draw.