Tiafoe confident ahead of AO as Kooyong crowd treated to entertaining spectacle

WORLD number 17 Frances Tiafoe is bullish on his chances at next week’s Australian Open.

There is saying you want to win a major, and there is confidently declaring it. Tiafoe has set that as a realistic goal ahead of this year’s first Grand Slam tournament. The American enters the Australian Open off the back of a career-best Grand Slam run at his home event, making the semi-finals of last year’s US Open.

A quarter final run in 2019 is his best result in Melbourne but he said his deep run at Flushing Meadows changed his mindset.

“I’m really excited to do something special here in Melbourne,” Tiafoe said after a 7-6 6-2 Kooyong Classic loss to Dominic Thiem. “I want to win a tournament, let’s go. 

“Obviously if I don’t, I’m not going to be upset but I want to give myself a chance of winning, I know I can play with the best in the world, especially at my best. “I’m enjoying myself but you don’t think of the final, you think of the first round so that’s what I’m thinking about.

“I’m at my peak confidence right now I feel like I’m going into my prime here, hopefully these Aussie fans get behind me, get some rowdy crowds, then it’s tough to play against Frances Tiafoe. “(The fans) love seeing some grit, so I am going to compete my ass off and we’ll see. 

“At my best, the fans will enjoy coming to watch me play so I want to do something special for the event. I love Craig Tiley so hopefully it can be a fun one.”

The Kooyong crowd was treated to an exhibition-style match in Tiafoe’s match, which gave both players important match practice under the searing Melbourne sun.

The first set lasted more than an hour, before Thiem ran away with it. There were several breaks of serve in the first set and it was an entertaining display played in jovial spirits at the lead-in tournament.

At one stage, Tiafoe asked Thiem ‘you planning on going wide again?’ after three consecutive unreturnable serves on the advantage side. When Thiem obliged and Tiafoe broke, he said to his team: “I wanted him to go wide so bad!”

But Thiem won four consecutive points in the tiebreaker to win the first set 7-6. The American took pace off his serve late in the match, Thiem willing to give more in a lower-intensity second set, with fewer recent matches under his belt than Tiafoe, who won the United Cup last week.

It is Thiem’s first win of 2023 after defeats in last week’s Adelaide International qualifiers to Soonwoo Kwon, and on Tuesday to Alex de Minaur.


In the second match, top-ranked Chinese player Zhizhen Zhang used his power to win the first four games against Andy Murray, before the Brit adjusted to conditions and rebounded in the second set. Murray then won the first four points of the match tiebreaker and never surrendered that ascendancy in an important tune-up.

Australian Open wildcard Kimberly Birrell punched well above her weight at her final match ahead of next week, taking a set off world number 60 Donna Vekic. The 6-2 scorecard belies the intensity of the gruelling opening to the match as Birrell was forced to dig deep, but she was up to the task. After several break point opportunities, the world number 166 secured it in the fifth game and ran away with the set from there.

But Vekic reversed the scoreline in the second set as her class shone through, before winning a close match tiebreaker. The world number 154 learned about the wildcard late last week when she was preparing for the Open qualifiers – gifted to her after the withdrawal of Venus Williams. Finding out so late meant she didn’t have time to enter a lead-in tournament so her time on-court at Kooyong was valuable.

“I found out just after one of my practice sessions, I got off court and Paul Kilderry – one of the Tennis Australia wildcard selectors – was waiting for me and he told me about the news,” Birrell said post-match.

“It was the absolute least thing I was expecting, (I’m) absolutely over the moon (and) so excited and grateful to be given the opportunity again.”

The Queenslander is looking forward to playing in the Aussie heat after a strong finish to 2022 on the second-tier ITF tour, which saw her win the Playford title in October after three weeks earlier making the Cairns final. It capped off a resurgent season for Birrell, who started last year ranked outside the top 800 due to an elbow injury restricting her tennis in the previous three seasons.

“I have some of my best tennis memories at the Aus Open as an Aussie playing at home; I’m going to try and enjoy as best I can but also use it as a real opportunity to give myself a real launching pad into the 2023 season to get to my career high ranking.”

Rinky Hijikata’s second Kooyong Classic match closed out play on day two, this time taking on China’s Hijbing Wu. The Aussie lost his first service game and Wu maintained the upper hand throughout the first set, and then broke at 4-4 in the second for a 6-3 6-4 victory.

Aussie Alexei Popyrin kicks off tomorrow’s action against Taylor Fritz, followed by de Minaur up against Murray.

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