Move over Luke Littler. The big story on day four of the Australian Open was Mirra Andreeva, the 16-year-old Russian who came through qualifying to reach the fourth round of Wimbledon last year.
Three months younger than Luke the Nuke, Andreeva has now added another big-name scalp to her burgeoning collection. In the first match scheduled on Rod Laver Arena, she demolished two-time Wimbledon finalist Ons Jabeur in just 54 minutes.
As the recent World Darts Championship reminded us, extreme youth can be a weapon of intimidation. No one likes to lose to a schoolkid. On Wednesday, though, it was Jabeur’s turn to be schooled.
This second-round match got off to a misleading start when Jabeur hit an ace with her opening serve. It was about the only thing that went right for her. Her game – which is normally as full of tricks as a magician’s desk drawer – simply refused to settle.
Meanwhile Andreeva was bustling away unflappably. Such precocious talents often give the impression of wearing blinkers. It is as if they have not yet come to realise what is at stake.
After the first set of this 6-0, 6-2 towelling, Andreeva took a bathroom break. Jabeur traipsed over to her coach, Issam Jellali, and engaged in an awkward conversation. She had won only eight points by that stage, and was clearly at a loss. Whatever she was saying to Jellali, her expression transmitted a different message: “Please get me out of here.”
Things did not get much better in the second set. Even Jabeur’s trademark drop shots were being tracked down by her relentless opponent.
The irony is that Andreeva always cites Jabeur as her favourite female player (Andy Murray is her favourite male).
While playing her first grand-slam event in Paris last spring, Andreeva said she was keen to practice with Jabeur, because “I like the way she plays, and I think our game is quite, let’s say, similar.”
And now, here she was, wiping the floor with her idol. With fans like this, who needs enemies?
The match ended with one more uncontrolled groundstroke from Jabeur, who – to her great credit – managed a warm smile and an embrace at the net. This is, after all, the woman who nicknamed herself “Minister for Happiness” at Wimbledon two years ago.
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And yet, for all her charisma, Jabeur now seems to be struggling with her own expectations after twice finishing as runner-up in SW19.
As if to rub more salt in the wound, Andreeva spoke about the new school term – which she attends remotely from wherever she is on tour – in her post-match press conference. “I still don’t like chemistry,” she said. “I still have to do a lot of school. It actually started two days ago.”
By overcoming the sixth seed, Andreeva effectively takes that spot in the draw – and her route through to the quarter-finals looks a manageable one. Next up is Diane Parry, the Frenchwoman with an elegant yet all-too vulnerable one-handed backhand. And then it would probably be ninth seed Barbora Krejcikova – who has had a poor year at the slams – in the last 16. She beat both these players at the majors last year.
It was a good day all round for the Russian women, especially the up-and-coming ones. While Andreeva was surging on Melbourne Park’s biggest court, 20-year-old qualifier Maria Timofeeva was outlasting former world No 1 Caroline Wozniacki a couple of hundred metres away on John Cain Arena.
“That’s kind of what it’s always been, right?” said a philosophical Wozniacki after Timofeeva’s 1-6, 6-4, 6-1 comeback win. “You have the young ones coming up, you have the older generation, you have kind of in between. Tennis moves on. But Mirra, obviously I think everyone knows about her. She’s playing extremely well and [is] fearless.”
The Russians still have to go without flags by their name, in an increasingly box-ticking acknowledgement of the ongoing war in Ukraine. But it does not seem to be putting them off much.
Anastasia Zakharova, who turns 22 on Thursday, dashed through her second-round match – a 49-minute 6-1, 6-1 rout of Slovenia’s Kaja Juvan – even more quickly than Andreeva did. Admittedly, 16-year-old Alina Korneeva – who beat Andreeva in last year’s junior final here – went down to the nuggety Beatriz Haddad Maia by a similarly one-sided scoreline. But this group of youngsters has a huge upside.
“Sometimes you start thinking there is no new generation,” said Dinara Safina, the Russian former world No 1, in an interview with tennis.com. “And then boom! You have one, two three, four all coming up, one behind the other. Once one girl from their age group starts having results, they all start to inspire each other.
“The best thing about being 16 is that you have no fear,” added Safina, who made her own grand-slam debut as a 16-year-old at the 2002 US Open. “This is a fearlessness that, unfortunately, you will never have again!”