Dudi Sela advanced to the second round of the Australian Open for the first time since 2009 on Monday, edging Jan-Lennard Struff of Germany in a fiveset thriller in Melbourne.
Sela, ranked No. 106 in the world, got off to a promising start after taking the first set, but found himself in trouble after dropping the next two. However, he bounced back to send the match to a decider and wrapped up a 6-4, 4-6, 3-6, 6-3, 7-5 win over Struff (57) in three hours and 28 minutes.
The 29-year-old Israeli surprisingly chose not to play any warm-up events ahead of the year’s first Grand Slam event, and his decision was made to look good on Monday.
Struff hit 35 more winners than Sela (74-39), but the Israeli was far more consistent from the baseline, making 41 fewer unforced errors (77-36).
“I already led 4-1 in the fifth set and could see the finishing line but then I had some cramp and he came back,” said Sela. “I lost a similar match in Melbourne last year so I’m happy it went my way this year.”
Sela, who had lost in the first round in his previous five appearances in Melbourne, will now hope to make it past the second round of a grand slam tournament for the first time since Wimbledon in 2009.
The Israeli will have to spring an upset to do so, with No. 28 seed Lukas Rosol his next opponent. Rosol also came through a five-set match on Monday, beating Kenny De Schepper 4-6, 6-2, 6-7, 6-3, 6-4 after three hours and 17 minutes.
Sela and Rosol have met on the ATP Tour once in the past, with the Israeli having the upper hand in the first round in Zagreb last year.
“Rosol is a very attacking and aggressive player,” said Sela. “I have beaten him in the past and this is a relatively okay draw. This is a chance and I’m feeling good. I hope I put on a good show and win.”
Should Sela beat Rosol he will likely face Rafael Nadal in the third round.
Nadal was all about big statements on Monday’s opening day as he emerged onto Rod Laver Arena in a hot pink shirt and trounced Russian veteran Mikhail Youzhny 6-3, 6-2, 6-2 to gain a welcome dose of confidence.
Undercooked and on the comeback trail after a long lay-off due to injury and illness, the third-seeded Spaniard needed only a handful of games before clicking into grand slam gear.
Needing less than two hours to account for former top-10 player Youzhny, he prowled around the center court like an uncaged tiger, blazing winners and pumping his fists in an emphatic return to Melbourne Park.
“Very positive result for me,” the 28-year-old told reporters. “Always before the first match you always have the doubts, especially in this situation I’m arriving here.
“Every match is very important for me today. It was a comfortable victory that give me some confidence.”
The year’s first Grand Slam has doled out more heartbreak than glory for the 14-time major winner in recent years, and after missing the 2013 tournament with illness, he carried a back injury into last year’s final and lost to Stan Wawrinka.
Having had encouraging runs at Melbourne Park cut short by injury flare-ups, Nadal was at pains to play down his Youzhny demolition as just one victory on a long road back.
He also showed a Zen-like resignation in the face of his many long-term injuries, which have forced him to re-boot his career three times after long lay-offs.
“At the end, you know that you are not going to be at 100 percent, so the most important thing when you are coming back is accept all the challenges, the weeks, months, that you didn’t have the chance to be able to practice, to compete,” said Nadal, who faces American Tim Smyczek in the next round.
“Accept that you’re going to be a little slow, a little out of rhythm. You can practice a lot. I did. I practiced I think enough and with the right attitude, but at the end what you need is matches.”
Roger Federer and Maria Sharapova glittered under the Rod Laver Arena lights on Monday night, restoring order after eight women’s seeds crashed out in the afternoon sun on a manic opening day.
The evergreen Federer strolled into the second round with a classy 6-4, 6-2, 7-5 win over Taiwan’s Lu Yen-Hsun before fellow second seed Sharapova ruined Croatian qualifier Petra Martic’s 24th birthday with a 6-4, 6-1 victory.
Although the retired Li Na is not defending her singles title, the glowing Chinese stole the spotlight from the players when she announced she was expecting her first child with husband and former coach Jiang Shan.
“I think [Jiang] is doing a good job. He just made one ace,” said the 32-year-old crowd favorite on the Rod Laver Arena, sparking cheers from the terraces.
The hole left by the twice Grand Slam champion’s absence is begging to be filled and a rejuvenated Sharapova, dressed to kill in a smart red outfit, looked the part in a controlled display against the outgunned Martic.
Federer joined Sharapova in the winners’ circle at the Brisbane International this month and, on his coach Stefan Edberg’s 49th birthday, the Swiss notched his 1,001st tour win.
“Winning in the first round, it’s always a bit of a relief. I thought I played good,” the 33-year-old told reporters after dashing around the court like a frantic teenager against the 47th-ranked Lu.
While seventh seed Eugenie Bouchard advanced with a straight-sets victory over 98th-ranked German Anna-Lena Friedsam, half of the 16 women’s seeds in action were swept away before the sun had set on a glorious day.
Fifth seed Ana Ivanovic was the highest- profile casualty, the former world No. 1 falling in three sets to doubles specialist Lucie Hradecka of the Czech Republic.
Ninth-seeded German Angelique Kerber blamed a “bad day” at the office after being dumped out by Romanian Irina- Camelia Begu in three topsy-turvy sets.
Lucie Safarova (16), Carla Suarez Navarro (17) and twice grand slam champion Svetlana Kuznetsova (27) were also among the eight sent packing.
Sixth seed Andy Murray, bidding for a maiden Australian Open title after three trips to the final, opened up with a 6-3, 6-4, 7-6(3) win over Indian qualifier Yuki Bhambri.
The biggest upset in the men’s draw was provided by 18-year-old Australian Thanasi Kokkinakis, who knocked out No. 11 seed Ernests Gulbis in five sets.
Reuters contributed to this report.