8 Jan 2019

Tennis: Blood on the floor as Statham shows his fighting spirit

8:19 pm on 8 January 2019

Opinion - Who doesn't love a little battler? Rubin Statham went into today's first round match at the ASB Classic as undoubtedly the biggest underdog in the tournament.

Rubin Statham (NZL) during the ASB Classic. ASB Tennis Centre, Auckland,  New Zealand. Tuesday 8 January 2019.

Rubin Statham during his win over South Korean Hyeon Chung at the ASB Classic in Auckland. Photo: Photosport

He walked off centre court with a fair amount of swag after beating South Korean Hyeon Chung 7-5 6-3. No-one was expecting Statham to get anywhere near the world number 25, after he was given a tournament wildcard and automatic entry to the main draw.

The media room was actually bare for most of the first set - we'd all gone to a press conference for the previous match's winner. When we left it was 1-1, when we got back Chung was up 5-1. Pretty much how we were predicting it, and a few eyes started drifting back to the Black Caps' game on at the same time. However, that didn't last long as Statham mounted his improbable comeback.

It all seemed to turn after Statham literally left a bit of himself out on the court. A nasty scrape in the first set saw him need to get the blood on his hand cleaned up. After that he rattled off six consecutive games to take the set. Statham had everyone's full attention as he cruised through the second, sending the number six seed out of the tournament and bringing the crowd to their feet as the final point went his way.

It capped off a memorable few days for NZ Tennis, which have been pretty few and far between lately. Paige Hourigan managed to make the women's Classic doubles final, while Marcus Daniell and his partner won the Brisbane International doubles on the same day. While the sport in this country needed that badly, the ASB Classic kind of did, too.

The perils of running a tennis tournament have been fairly evident as the men's edition began yesterday, but to be fair, it hasn't stopped the crowds still flocking in to Stanley Street. Temperatures hit their highest so far for the fortnight of tennis, but several big names did not find out what effect that had on centre court - because they all pulled out before it even started.

Roberto Bautista Agut, Gael Monfils and Tomas Berdych all failed to make the start line. Bautista Agut's withdrawal is particularly galling, given that he is the defending champion. While Monfils actually appeared pretty disappointed with his third non-start at the tournament, Berdych just straight up ghosted without any decent excuse.

It was a problematic development for the ASB Classic, which had such a good week last week with the women's tournament pulling big crowds thanks to a stacked lineup.

When play did get underway yesterday in the men's, it wasn't exactly an auspicious start.

Cameron Norrie is known as 'the one that got away' in these parts, having grown up in Auckland but choosing to switch allegiance to Great Britain at age 16. It's paid off, with the 23-year-old now in the top 100. He played Benoit Paire first up, however, the Frenchman put on what can only be described as an hour or so long dummy spit at being forced to play so soon after arriving in Auckland. Paire double faulted, sent easy slices into the net, and thought nothing of applauding Norrie's winners on the way to a straight sets loss.

Then last night, teen sensation Denis Shapovalov crashed out in a three-set loss to João Sousa. There were high hopes for the Canadian, who impressed everyone with his exciting play and friendly off-court demeanour last year.

David Ferrer

Spain's David Ferrer, an enduring favourite in Auckland, won his match today. Photo: Photosport

However, today rectified a great deal of the disappointment. Along with Statham's heroics, crowd favourite David Ferrer blasted his way past Robin Haase for a popular win. It's his last ever appearance in Auckland, with the Spaniard set to retire at the end of the season.

That's how quickly things can change here at Stanley Street - the first round looked like a mess, all of a sudden the second round is looking very tidy indeed.

*Frustration at his own shortcomings as a rugby player and multiple concussions have left Jamie with an innate ability to find fault with rules, players, matches and sporting bodies alike.