The opening day crowd packed into Margaret Court Arena on Monday afternoon witnessed a titanic first round battle between Aussie Matthew Ebden and Russian 23rd seed Mikhail Youzhny.
In the end, it was the Russian who managed to dig himself out of a substantial hole, coming back from two sets down to prevail 4-6 6-7(0) 6-2 7-6(4) 6-3 in one minute short of four hours.
Ebden, ranked world No.108, looked sharp out of the blocks, mixing up his game well and consistently pinning his Russian opponent to the back of the court. With the crowd building in intensity behind him, he kept the pressure on Youzhny throughout the opening set, and a single break of serve was enough to hand it to the Australian 6-4.
Although both players were struggling to hold serve at times throughout the second set, the enigmatic world No.25 always seemed a step behind Ebden, with the Australian doing his utmost to make the most of his early advantage. He was creating more chances than his opponent, and amassed six break point opportunities to the Russian’s three.
But with multiple breaks traded between the players, the set looked headed towards an inevitable tiebreaker, which came after 35 minutes of entertaining tennis.
The unpredictable Russian, who has been known to drift in and out of matches, chose an inopportune moment for a lapse and, inexplicably, played an error-prone tiebreaker, handing it to the Aussie 7-0.
With Ebden ahead two sets to love and an upset brewing, the local crowd was reaching fever pitch. But the extroverted Russian seemed to feed off the atmosphere of Margaret Court Arena, raising his game – and his intensity – to bludgeon his way to a 6-2 third set.
The fourth set began in a similar vein, but this time Ebden seemed more ready for a fight. With the Russian willing himself to a fifth set, fists were pumping and war cries were getting louder from his end of the court, while the Australian knuckled down to the task at hand, letting the crowd provide the substantial backing track for his own efforts.
Nothing could split the two combatants as they each held their own, but it appeared the Australian had a slight edge back, bringing up two break points at 2-1. He was unable to capitalise with a backhand passing shot skimming just outside the line.
He brought up another opportunity at 5-4, but this time it was a match point. Once again though, a backhand pass slid wide and Youzhny was able to level proceedings.
The arm wrestle had slid the Russian’s way and he doubled-down on the Australian’s disappointment of missing a match point by breaking him easily and setting up an opportunity to force a fifth set.
Ebden was not quite ready to let that happen though – and with the crowd right behind him on every stroke – he lifted once again. A Youzhny double-fault at deuce gave the Australian the sniff he needed to take the fourth set into a tiebreaker.
This time, however, the Russian had no plans of fading out as he had done earlier and he quickly pushed out to a 3-0 lead. While Ebden was able to eradicate that early advantage, he didn’t have enough to quell the Russian’s charge and the match moved into a deciding set.
With Ebden perhaps harbouring bad memories of his meeting with Kei Nishikori at last year’s Open on the very same court – where he squandered a two set lead to lose in a one-sided fifth – he opened the final set a little shakily, and before long the Russian had taken a commanding 4-1 lead.
The pumped up Russian was never going to let go, and he held the advantage to close out a classic first round battle.