Australian teenager Philip Sekulic hailed a hit-out with world No.4 Stefanos Tsitsipas at Melbourne Park as pivotal to his breakthrough first-round Australian Open qualifying victory on Monday.
The 18-year-old wildcard overcame a rankings gap of more than 700 places on debut for a 6-4 6-3 triumph over German Matthias Bachinger in an hour and 19 minutes.
Ranked just inside the top 1000, the Brisbane teenager spent most of last year in juniors before he reached back-to-back ITF Futures finals in India in November.
With wins under his belt, then came an opportunity to test his level against two-time Australian Open semifinalist Tsitsipas in training on the newly-opened Kia Arena, which only emboldened his belief ahead of his first qualifying outing.
"I got a couple of practice sessions in with Stefanos, which I think really helped me because he hits the ball really well and I was able to sort of get into a good rhythm with my tennis and hitting the ball," Sekulic said.
"I think those sessions definitely helped me, just seeing the way he works, the way he trains, what he does on the court, that must have helped me. I try to do the same stuff myself, I guess."
Sekulic only returned to junior Slams at Roland Garros last year after the Covid pandemic forced the cancellation of the prior three junior majors.
It was a tough blow in such a formative year of his development, but the Brisbane teenager took the setback in his stride, knowing he was not alone in being affected.
"I did miss playing tennis internationally for almost a year, I'd say," Sekulic said.
"Last year I was still playing juniors and travelling despite a lot of Covid around, but I was vaccinated so I could still play some junior Grand Slams and get some good match experience by playing some of the top-level juniors in the world, which helped me prepare for this match today."
From top-level juniors to top five in the world, few qualifying hopes could boast such a dramatic jump in standard of hitting partners before their bid for an Australian Open main draw berth.
"Stefanos hits the ball really clean. Pretty much every shot he's in position. I feel he never feels rushed, he serves really well and hits really accurately," Sekulic said.
"They're probably some of the biggest differences. When I hit with him I get to hit a lot of balls.
"He doesn't miss much at all, which is good, and he hits pretty fast and pretty deep as well … so if I'm hitting with him I get my eye in."
Sekulic will need to have his eye in again to find a way past Kazakhstan's Dmitry Popko next. The world No.180 was a 6-1 7-5 winner over sixth-seeded Spaniard, Bernabe Zapata Miralles.
Canada's Rebecca Marino was one of the first winners on the opening day of qualifying, following her 6-3 6-3 victory over Switzerland's Ylena In-Albon.
The world No.145, who reached her highest mark of No.38 more than a decade ago, continued her career revival, having spent more than five years away from the sport to address mental health and injury concerns.
Front and centre of mind were her run through qualifying last year, when she went on to win her first Grand Slam main draw match in almost a decade at Melbourne Park.
"Definitely, this is a very special place for me, a lot of great memories through the years, particularly last year (which) was really memorable and meaningful," the 31-year-old said.
"Having that break I think was really significant and helpful for me. I feel like coming back now I have a stronger sense of who I am and my identity, and that shows when I'm playing on court. There is a difference in confidence and happiness to my play, and it's very freeing."
The 24th seed meets a throwback opponent in 35-year-old Ukrainian Kateryna Bondarenko next, the player she warmed up with on Monday and whom she beat first up at Roland Garros in 2011.
Men's qualifying top seed, Slovenian Andrej Martin, fell at the first hurdle to Dutch former world No.33, Robin Haase, 6-0 4-6 7-5, while ninth seed Francisco Cerundolo's hopes of joining younger brother Juan Manuel Cerundolo in the main draw were dashed after falling to Argentine compatriot Pedro Cachin, 6-7(5) 6-4 6-2.
Third-seeded Colombian Daniel Elahi Galan crashed out against India's Prajnesh Gunneswaran 6-4 6-4, but former world No.23 Damir Dzumhur snapped a three-match losing streak to defeat Australian wildcard Li Tu, 6-1 6-3.
Women’s top seed Anna Kalinskaya (Russia) and third seed Zhu Lin (China) also bowed out. Spain’s Andrea Lazaro Garcia easily dismissed Kalinskaya 6-1 6-4, while France’s Tessah Andrianjafitrimo downed Zhu 3-6 7-6(5) 6-3.
Fourth seed Nina Stojanovic of Serbia was the first player to advance on Monday, following her 6-1 6-2 result over Brazilian Laura Pigossi, while Australian wildcard Kimberly Birrell was the first player to win on the new Kia Arena.
The 23-year-old Queenslander finished strongly to deny Russian Marina Melnikova 7-6(0) 3-6 6-1, and will meet 22nd-seeded Georgian Ekaterine Gorgodze next.