At one end of the court, you had David Ferrer, the third seed and a semifinalist at Melbourne Park last year, contesting his 12th straight Australian Open and 45th consecutive major tournament.
At the other was Colombia’s Alejandro Gonzalez, a recent entry into the world’s top 100 (currently at No.74), playing in just his second ever tour-level event and facing for the first time a player ranked inside the top 50.
You couldn’t have found two opponents at more differing points in their careers.
And in the opening stages of their first round match on Rod Laver Arena, the gulf between the two players’ experience and credentials was very much on show.
Ferrer, a Roland Garros finalist in 2013, would eventually win 6-3 6-4 6-4, a workman-like win that showed some room for improvement but also the fact that as he gets his teeth stuck into the tournament, he’s going to be a difficult foe for anyone in the draw.
“It was tough match, in the second and third sets I was a few breaks down … (But) in important moments I can win,” he said on court following the match.
“Nice to come back (to the Australian Open), sure. (Coming) back playing in centre court it’s very nice for myself. I’m No.3 (seed) but it’s just one number. It’s a new season and I want to be focused on my next opponent.”
Gonzalez must have felt like he was playing against a brick wall or a ball machine, as Ferrer brought his trademark intensity, consistency, and relentlessness to the match from the very first point.
In just 17 minutes, the Spaniard led 5-0.
But in the sixth game, a running forehand passing shot from Gonzalez showed he was still prepared to fight despite the perilous situation. And it was a positive moment that seemed to relax him on the big stage – he held to get on the board at 5-1, and benefitted from a slight drop in Ferrer’s level in the next game, with two errors helping him secure his first break of serve.
When Gonzalez held serve in the next game to make scores 5-3, the crowd now had a match on its hands.
That was until Ferrer stamped out the challenge, going out after his shots a little more and finding winners when he needed them to pocket the opening set.
But with those few games under his belt, it was clear the Colombian was becoming more comfortable with the surrounds of a premier show court and the level of such an elite opponent.
After going down a break early in the second set, Gonzalez responded with a run of four straight games, troubling Ferrer with his power and watching as the Spaniard coughed up errors long, wide, and into the net.
But Ferrer’s ability to shrug off setbacks and persist with his strategy is exemplary; he played forehand and backhand winners and drew volley errors from Gonzalez to break back, and comfortably held serve in the following game to level at 4-4.
When a forcing off-forehand gained Ferrer a break point in the ninth game, the fight had drained somewhat from Gonzalez’s game. He dumped a backhand into the net to surrender his serve, and a pair of forehand winners helped the third seed on his way to a two-sets-to-love lead.
The third set was a carbon copy of the second; Gonzalez gained the lead, only for the Spaniard to chip away at it.
The Colombian watched a 3-1 lead slip, and when Ferrer broke for 4-3 after another netted volley from his opponent, Gonzalez called for the trainer to tape an apparent blister on his foot, possibly the result of the radiant court heat and the kilometres he was clocking up against one of the fittest players on tour.
Gonzalez couldn’t recover the break back.
Despite going up 0-30 in the 10th game thanks to some brilliant attacking play when Ferrer was serving for the match, he dished up three straight errors from 15-30 – including a botched smash on match point – to hand the Spaniard victory.
Next up for the No.3 seed is Frenchman Adrian Mannarino.