Sofia Kenin of the US leaves after losing against Estonia's Kaia Kanepi during their women's singles match on day four of the Australian Open tennis tournament in Melbourne on Thursday
Sofia Kenin of the US leaves after losing against Estonia's Kaia Kanepi during their women's singles match on day four of the Australian Open tennis tournament in Melbourne on Thursday
AFP

Melbourne: Sofia Kenin knew this would be a tough test at the Australian Open, a potentially early end to her first attempt to defend a Grand Slam title.

Upon realising she probably would be playing big-hitting veteran Kaia Kanepi in the second round, Kenin acknowledged, she "maybe kind of broke down a little bit."

Kenin was right to be worried. And, with Kanepi at her best, this one was over quickly. Delivering 10 aces, Kanepi powered her way past the fourth-seeded Kenin, overwhelming the 2020 champion 6-3, 6-2 in only 64 minutes on Thursday.

"I obviously felt like I'm not there 100% — physically, mentally, my game. Everything just feels real off, obviously. It's not good," Kenin said at her news conference, where she wiped away tears.

"I mean, I just — I know I couldn't really handle the pressure."

One person who knows how to defend a major title is Rafael Nadal, who shares the men's record of 20 with Roger Federer.

Nadal shrugged off some heckling from a spectator before beating 177th-ranked Michael Mmoh 6-1, 6-4, 6-2 in the last night match, showing no signs of the back soreness that has bothered him.

Nadal was serving for the second set at 5-4 when a woman yelled out and made hand gestures as he prepared to serve. She yelled again at 30-0 and stadium security escorted her out of Rod Laver Arena. As the rest of the crowd started booing the woman, Nadal laughed.

After the brief delay, he hit two aces to finish off the set. He wrapped up the match 1 hour, 47 minutes.

Nadal said it was a "positive evening." Except for one strange thing.

Asked if he knew the unruly spectator, Nadal said he didn't "and, honestly, I don't want to know."

In the preceding match on the main show court, fifth-seeded Elina Svitolina beat 16-year-old Coco Gauff 6-4, 6-3, knocking the youngest player out of the draw.

Gauff had a breakout major in Melbourne last year, reaching the round of 16 with wins over Venus Williams and Naomi Osaka before losing to Kenin. But Svitolina was just too consistent when it counted, saving all four break points she faced and converting on two of the three she had on Gauff's serve.

Gauff said she stayed calm and was playing at a higher standard of tennis than last year, but it wasn't quite enough.

Kanepi said her winning performance wasn't merely a case of taking advantage of Kenin's nerves because "I was nervous, too ... playing the defending champion, that was the thought."

Kanepi, 35, had beaten Kenin, 22, in their only previous matchup, part of why this was not a contest the American was looking forward to. Plus, Kanepi has been successful against some of the best on the biggest stages, with seven victories over Top 10 opponents at Grand Slam tournaments, including against then-No. 1 Simona Halep at the 2018 U.S. Open.

And then there was recent form.

Kenin walked off the court crying after a 6-2, 6-2 loss last week in a tuneup event at the site of the Australian Open and explained afterward that her left leg was sore. Kanepi, meanwhile, put an end to No. 7-ranked Aryna Sabalenka's 15-match winning streak last week and had won 16 of her past 17 outings.

With serves topping 175 kph (110 mph), Kanepi saved all seven break points she faced. And she wound up with a 22-10 edge in winners.

"I couldn't find my rhythm," Kenin said.

"I was obviously way too nervous."

Her departure meant three of the top nine seeded women already were gone before midway through Day 4 at a Grand Slam tournament where routines have been disrupted by the pandemic.

Top-ranked Ash Barty did manage to avoid a surprise Thursday, but she blew a big lead in the second set and survived a shaky tiebreaker to get past Daria Gavrilova 6-1, 7-6 (7).

Other women's winners included former No. 1 Karolina Pliskova, who beat Danielle Collins 7-5, 6-2, and Shelby Rogers, who reached the third round at the Australian Open for the first time by beating Olga Danilovic 6-2, 6-3.

In an all-American match, No. 22 Jennifer Brady beat Madison Brengle 6-1, 6-2.

Barty, trying to become the first Australian to win the women's title at Melbourne since Chris O'Neil in 1978, lost only 10 points in the opening round, and her match against Gavrilova was equally lopsided until the wobbly finish. She led 5-2 in the second set but was broken twice serving for the victory.

"When you play another Aussie, rankings go out the window, experience goes out the window," Barty said.

"Typically you know each other so well. It's always going to be a tricky match."

That was the case on the men's side, when the first all-Italian men's singles match at the Australian Open in the professional era was followed by a heated argument between Fabio Fognini and Salvatore Caruso.

Fognini rallied from 5-1 down in the tiebreaker to win 4-6, 6-2, 2-6, 6-3, 7-6 (12) in almost four hours. The verbal altercation started at the net, seemed to fade as the players went back to their courtside chairs, but restarted twice. A tournament official eventually intervened to break them up.

The 16th-seeded Fognini said he and Caruso were good friends and would leave matters on the court.

Fifth-seeded Stefanos Tsitsipas was pushed all the way by No. 267-ranked Australian wild-card entry Thanasi Kokkinakis in a 6-7 (5), 6-4, 6-1, 6-7 (5), 6-4 win. Tsitsipas will next play Mikael Ymer, who beat 17-year-old Spanish qualifier Carlos Alcaraz in the second round.

Also advancing were No. 9 Matteo Berrettini, No. 21 Alex de Minaur and Mackenzie McDonald, who beat 22nd-seeded Borna Coric 6-4, 6-2, 4-6, 6-4, and 39-year-old Feliciano Lopez.

Russia's ATP Cup-winning teammates Daniil Medevev and Andrey Rublev continued their unbeaten starts to the year with straight-set wins. The fourth-seeded Medevev extended his winning streak to 16 by beating Roberto Carballes Baena 6-2, 7-5, 6-1.

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