Andy Murray could always do with some British company at major tennis tournaments but he lost one of his two compatriots in the men’s draw, Aljaz Bedene, before they had cleared the afternoon cutlery from the hospitality suites on day one of the 2017 Australian Open.
Bedene dug himself in and out of more holes than a motorway navvy before the gnarled and resolute Victor Estrella Burgos prevailed 7-6 (7), 7-5, 0-6, 6-3. A computer glitch incorrectly recorded that none of their 278 rallies in three hours and 10 minutes of highly competitive tennis lasted longer than four shots, a statistic given the lie by the exhausted mien of the combatants.
It was a crushing loss for Bedene, whose off-court, in-court legal jousting with the International Tennis Federation in a bid to qualify to play Davis Cup for his adopted country has plainly drained his spirit. Having taken possession of his British passport in March, 2015, he had considered his case a formality. It is still in limbo, as his career.
Bedene had set points in each of the first two frames but could not control his normally lethal forehand as one errant shot after another flew from his racket. He finished with 64 unforced errors, 42 of them on his forehand.
And it had all started so well for him.
Estrella Burgos, the fourth oldest man here at 36 – behind Tommy Haas, Radek Štěpánek and Ivo Karlovic – is never the less a super-fit, scurrying scrapper capable of upsetting all but the very best. The Dominican Republic veteran, six places ahead of his younger opponent at 103 in the world rankings, suffered under the weight of Bedene’s crisp ground strokes in a lively opener on Court 5, with the clatter of the suburban trams drifting through to lend a club-like atmosphere to proceedings. But he drew on his considerable experience to extricate himself from a string of tight situations.
Estrella Burgos saved six of seven break points in the first set, won three games in a row, forced a tie-break and held his nerve to go ahead after an hour and 10 minutes.
Bedene, whose first serve had deserted him, struggled to stop the rot, and blew another break opportunity at the start of the second set. Within half an hour, a minor crisis had turned into a worrying meltdown and he trailed 1-4 against a teak-tough opponent nine years his senior and with a limited but disciplined array of shots. He fought back, but Estrella Burgos was flying and was two sets up after two hours.
Then the game – and Bedene – came to life. In the space of 26 minutes he had bagelled Estrella Burgos, who had done a ton of running and looked as if the pressure of leading was beginning to drain his stamina.
However, Bedene had physical problems, too. He was feeling his back between games and the power seemed to ebb from his serve as the temperature on the uncovered outside court moved past 30 degrees Celcius. His challenge was to muster all his reserves to win his first match here after four previous failures. It was beyond him.
The heat did not slacken in mid-afternoon and it was the older player who looked most up against it, losing his eighth game in a row after two hours and 41 minutes, before holding to trail 1-2 in the fourth. However, he then won another brace to level, lifted by the prospect of winning his first match here in three attempts, and was back on serve at 4-3. He found enough extra gas to serve out, relieved to convert his third match point in what had been an enthralling, error-filled fight.
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