In front of 4,000 fans at Memorial Drive, professional tennis returned in 2021.
The first balls of the Australian summer were hit by a star-studded cast assembled in Adelaide for A Day at the Drive, and despite the unprecedented times, some familiarity ensued, with Rafael Nadal, Simona Halep, Serena Williams and Novak Djokovic all winners on Friday.
Halep came from behind in the evening session to beat Aussie favourite Ash Barty in a battle between the world’s top two women, after Nadal took on Dominic Thiem in a clash between the reigning French and US Open champions.
On Friday afternoon, 23-time major winner Williams won a blockbuster clash against reigning US Open champion Naomi Osaka in the first of the day’s women’s singles matches.
It followed a victory to the Serbian duo of Djokovic and Filip Krajinovic, who each played a set in a 6-3 6-3 win over Italian rising star Jannik Sinner.
But perhaps the overriding takeaway from the day’s play was the joy the players clearly derived from competing for the first time in months, in front of crowds, in one of their favourite parts of the world – and the similar joy fans experienced witnessing the sport’s superstars up close at Memorial Drive.
“Honestly, we haven't played in front a crowd in over a year. So this is really cool,” Williams said after her 6-2 2-6 [10-7] win over Osaka.
“And then for having us, and trusting us with your laws, was great – we were so happy just to be here, and now it's worth it."
Halep v Barty
In the highest-quality match of the day in Adelaide, Barty’s power initially proved too strong for Halep until the Romanian’s consistency started to chip away at the world No.1’s resolve.
Halep raced through the second set to force a match tiebreak, which was a tight affair but one that the two-time major champion came out on top of to record a 3-6 6-1 [10-8] triumph.
"Actually I was very nervous, I felt like it was first time playing a match,” a smiling Halep said on court.
"I needed a little bit of oxygen today after two weeks’ quarantine, so it's not easy. And Ash doesn't look like she didn't play last year. It's gonna be a great fight, always, when I play against her."
Indeed, Barty had not appeared in a competitive setting since February 2020, and was thrilled to be back.
“I genuinely missed it so much and I cannot thank you guys enough for welcoming not only myself, but Sim, and all the other players here,” the Australian said to big cheers.
“I've been getting a little bit impatient the last two or three months getting ready to play, and I'm so excited to get started next week. It was the perfect preparation coming here.”
Nadal v Thiem
The night session kicked off when Nadal and Thiem met in a rematch of their high-quality AO 2020 quarterfinal.
But unlike that occasion, it was Nadal who came out on top at Memorial Drive.
Thiem mis-hit a forehand to give Nadal a break deep in the first set, and the Spaniard capitalised, clinching a one-set lead with a forehand winner.
Another break to Nadal, earned in the ninth game, helped him serve out a 7-5 6-4 win.
"The last two weeks have been great; we can't thank enough for South Australia and Tennis Australia for all the positive things they make,” Nadal said.
“I think for both of us it's been an amazing pleasure to be here in Adelaide for the first time in our lives. Has been amazing to play again in front of you guys, we missed a lot.
“I hope to have the right preparation for the Australian Open. I won in 2009, but I think almost everybody forget about that (laughter).
“But I keep trying hard and this year is a special one and I'm gonna keep trying my best.”
Serbs v Sinner
The festivities were dealt a blow before the first ball was struck when it emerged that Djokovic would have to withdraw from his match against Sinner after developing blisters on his playing hand.
Krajinovic, Djokovic’s practice partner in Adelaide, stood in for the world No.1 and played brilliantly, breaking early in the first set as Sinner struggled slightly with his range and timing.
After Krajinovic pocketed the first set, Djokovic appeared courtside – drawing huge cheers from the crowd – and took over from his compatriot in the second set, to see how his hand would hold up.
“The emotion was strong in me to come out on the court today, seeing almost full stands. I just had to play. That's it, I had to play,” smiled Djokovic, whose last trip to Adelaide came 14 years ago when he won the ATP title at Memorial Drive in 2007.
"Thank you so much for coming out and making our day, and making our year! I appreciate everyone's love and passion for this sport.”
Williams v Osaka
Following them on to court were Williams and Osaka, arguably the two biggest stars in women’s tennis.
Williams played an impressively clean opening set – finishing with twice as many winners as errors – while it was anything but for Osaka, who lacked rhythm and misfired on serve.
But the Japanese loosened up in the second set, unloading on several forehands to break in the opening game and wrest control of the momentum.
A match tiebreak was required to decide the outcome, with Williams ultimately more secure and steady.