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Men's wrap: Emerging stars fire as top guns dig in

  • Ravi Ubha

Sebastian Korda and Carlos Alcaraz emerged as new stars on tour in 2021 and duly raced to wins on the opening day of Australian Open 2022.

But a pair of Wimbledon semifinalists, Denis Shapovalov and Hubert Hurkacz, didn’t have it as easy. 

Gael Monfils, meanwhile, is back with a smile.

Monfils punched out 36 winners in a brutal display
Sebi sizzles against Norrie

Korda’s year-end ranking in 2021 improved to 41 from 118. The 196cm American bagged his first title, made another final – or two, if including the NextGen finale –
and reached the second week at a major for the second time.

After all that, you would be forgiven for thinking the 21-year-old appeared in the main draw at the Australian Open before.

But no. 

Monday marked his debut – and what a debut. 

In one of the most anticipated first-round men’s matches, Korda beat 12th seed Cam Norrie 6-3 6-0 6-4 in one hour, 42 minutes at Kia Arena.

Only the brave would have predicted such a lopsided outcome, especially since Korda contested his first match of 2022 after testing positive for Covid.

And even training in his hotel room during quarantine didn’t go as planned. In a Twitter video that unsurprisingly went viral, Korda’s hitting against a wall resulted in the ball landing in his groin.

Korda’s aim against Norrie was far more precise and he won the majority of big points. 

In games of 30-all or deuce, Korda owned a 9-2 advantage.

Korda’s scissor kick when he won the juniors in 2018 mirrored his dad Petr’s celebration in 1998, and the Florida resident offered an abbreviated version after thumping an ace on match point.

“I didn't get a lot of preparation, didn't get any matches under my belt,” Korda told reporters. “But, yeah, just super happy with the way I came out. I stuck with my tactics. They worked really well and, yeah, just really comfortable on these courts here.”

Breakout seasons like Norrie’s in 2021 – making six finals, winning Indian Wells and playing at the ATP Finals as an alternate – are often hard to duplicate and the New Zealand-raised Brit sunk to 0-4 in 2022.

“I think that’s maybe my worst match in the last eight months or so,” Norrie told reporters. “Disappointing, but it is what it is.”

Better days are surely ahead but in the immediate future, more lie ahead for Korda in Melbourne.

Eventful again for Nadal-inspired Shapovalov

Let’s recap Denis Shapovalov’s last month, shall we?

The often electrifying Canadian topped Rafael Nadal in an exhibition in Abu Dhabi in December before testing positive for Covid upon his arrival to Australia.

Shapovalov returned in time for the ATP Cup and guess what, helped his country win the showpiece in Sydney.

Eventful, yes, and his opener fit the script.

Shapovalov saved a pair of set points in the first – at 4-5 on his opponent’s serve – and ultimately battled past Laslo Djere 7-6(3) 6-4 3-6 7-6(3) in a bruising three-and-a-half hours.

The Serb also couldn’t serve out the fourth after saving a match point and breaking Shapovalov to keep proceedings afloat at John Cain Arena.

But tough starts at the Australian Open are nothing new for the 14th seed, who fell to the supremely fit Marton Fucsovics in three hours in 2020 and downed the now top-10 Jannik Sinner in five sets last year.

“Every time I come here, the first match is so long,” Shapovalov said with a laugh in his on-court interview. “I just kept fighting. I’m very happy with my effort. I felt like the fourth set was slipping away from me a little bit after having that match point.

Just stayed in it, tried to do everything I could and very happy with the outcome.”

Shapovalov is channeling Nadal – only a 20-time Grand Slam champ – when it comes to having consistent intensity and a positive mindset.

“It’s something that has been a work in progress,” he said. “It’s easy to get upset with yourself, especially having a slow start or something. But I think me and my team have done a good job of just working on that.

“Just fighting and kind of having a Rafa mentality and playing every single point.”

No ‘nightmare’ this year for Monfils

One of the game’s best entertainers, Gael Monfils found it difficult to have fun for much of the past two seasons. No fans at times on the circuit during the pandemic meant no joy for the Frenchman.

After a five-set loss to Emil Ruusuvuori last year – only the second time in 16 visits to the Australian Open he departed in the first round – an emotional Monfils called his plight a “nightmare.” His losing streak later stretched to eight matches.

Eleven months later and now a married man -- to twice Grand Slam semifinalist and TikTok hero Elina Svitolina -- Monfils feels significantly better.

The 17th seed and Adelaide 1 winner earlier in January eased into round two with a 6-1 6-1 6-3 victory over Federico Coria, the younger brother of 2004 French Open finalist Guillermo Coria.

Monfils tallied a tidy 36 winners and mere 21 unforced errors at Kia Arena.

“Feel great,” the 35-year-old told reporters. “Great match. I think I played very solid tennis. Can't complain when you start a slam like that. You're happy.”

Monfils will be hoping the neck injury he sustained at Adelaide 2 last week won’t be an issue going forward.

A double helping of popcorn might be handy for Monfils’ second-round tussle against his fellow showman, Alexander Bublik.

Alcaraz passes first hurdle – again 

Who did Korda lose to in the final of the NextGen finals? Carlos Alcaraz.

The Spaniard bettered even Korda’s year-end climb, soaring from 141 to 32, and broke through at a major by making the quarterfinals at the US Open.

His stint in New York – Alcaraz upset Stefanos Tsitsipas in a fifth-set tiebreak in one of the matches of the season – helped the 18-year-old earn a seeding of 31 at AO 2022. 

He is now a perfect 5-for-5 in his young career in surpassing the first round at Grand Slams following a 6-2 6-2 6-3 win over qualifier Alejandro Tabilo on Court 7. 

Alcaraz clubbed 12 aces and relinquished just one break point.

Not a bad start to the year after a bout of Covid in November.

Carlos Alcaraz has continued his sizzling US Open for in the first round of AO 2022

“I played a great level the first match of the season, really good feelings,” Alcaraz, who is targeting a spot at the ATP Finals this year, told reporters.

Hurkacz or Becker? 

Could this be the year Hubert Hurkacz exceeds the second round in Melbourne?
If the Pole volleys like he did Monday, yes is the answer.

The 10th seed struck a diving cross-court forehand volley to break for 5-3 in the fourth set on his way to a 6-2 7-6(3) 6-7(5) 6-3 win over Egor Gerasimov.

“It was a really good passing shot by him so I knew I needed to do something special to win this point,” Hurkacz said with a smile in his on-court interview. “So I’m like, ‘Okay, hopefully I don’t break anything but I’m going for it.’”

Don’t worry, he didn’t break anything. 

The softly spoken Hurkacz endeared himself to the fans in another way at John Cain Arena when he checked on a ball girl who took his ace in the stomach.

A fourth set initially looked unlikely when Hurkacz broke for 5-4 in the third.