11 January 2021 | Matt Trollope and Leigh Rogers

Aussie players have made a promising start in Australian Open 2021 qualifying, with three scoring first-round wins on day one.

Teenager Rinky Hijikata won through to the second round with a straight-sets dismissal of Christopher Eubanks on Sunday in Doha.

The 19-year-old wildcard beat the American 6-2 6-3 in a brisk 73 minutes to set up a meeting against 11th-seeded German Cedrik-Marcel Stebe.

Jason Kubler is also moving on in Doha after defeating compatriot Matthew Ebden 7-5 2-6 6-4 in an all-Australian first-round battle.

Meanwhile, at the women’s AO qualifying tournament in Dubai, Ellen Perez came through a compelling first-round clash against Caroline Dolehide spanning more than two hours.

After leading 6-3 4-2 30-0, Perez could only watch as Dolehide began to land her big groundstrokes and run away with the match. But trailing 1-4 in the third, Perez staged a comeback of her own – and eventually closed out a 6-3 5-7 7-5 win.

Hijikata advances

Although he was 23 centimetres shorter than his towering opponent, Hijikata got to work dismantling Eubanks’ power game. He broke early in the first set for a 3-1 lead, then broke a second time to pocket the opening set.

The second set went on serve until the eighth game, when Hijikata brought up a break point by forcing a volley error from Eubanks and converted when the American pushed a chipped backhand long.

Serving for the match, Hijikata fell behind 15-40 as Eubanks crushed two forehand winners.

But the young Aussie produced positive, attacking tennis when he needed it most. He closed on the net to save the second break point and clubbed a forehand winner to earn match point.

“I felt like I played pretty well today,” Hijikata said. “Obviously he’s a really tough player to play against – he’s got a really big serve and gives it a good hit from the back, so I kind of had to lock in from the first point today.

“I thought my game plan was pretty good, I was able to mix it up a little bit. I thought mentally I was pretty switched on throughout the whole match, which was a really important thing for me.

“Hopefully I can back it up again in a few days.”

Hijikata, currently ranked 685th, had not played a tour-level match since last year’s AO qualifying tournament.

He headed to the United States – where he plays college tennis – after AO 2020 only to have to return home in March due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

There he enjoyed an invaluable nine-month training block, while also competing in a UTR Pro Tennis Series events in Sydney.

He believes the time off has helped his tennis enormously.

“It was just a massive opportunity to kind of get my body right and try and get as fit and strong as I could,” Hijikata said.

“I was doing a lot of work with the guys back home at the Sydney National Academy – a lot of hours in the gym, lot of hours doing fitness, cardio, all that. Just trying to get the most out of it that I could, because it’s not often that you get that break in between tournaments. At the same time, I was itching to play, so it’s good to be back out here.”

Perez progresses past Dolehide

Perez is another player who benefitted from UTR Pro Tennis Series events in Sydney during 2020.

“There’s nothing like playing a match; you can train as much as you want but matches are really important. So I think those UTRs definitely allowed me to come here with a bit of confidence,” the world No.235 said.

“It was extremely pleasing (today) … obviously these courts really suit her game. She has a big serve, and the courts are really bouncy, so I thought I did extremely well to mitigate that strength of hers.

“It’s just really nice to get that confidence and that first win here.

“I’ve been feeling really good about my singles and I think that’s one of the big things – really believing in my game.”

The 25-year-old Perez faces former world No.19-ranked American Varvara Lepchenko next.

Kubler wins all-Aussie battle

Jason Kubler became the third Australian to advance, winning an All-Aussie opening-round clash late on Sunday.

The No.259-ranked Kubler recorded a hard-fought 7-5 2-6 6-4 victory over compatriot Matthew Ebden.

The pair had spent months training in Perth during the tour’s suspension in 2020 and also practised together in Doha this week.

“Personally I like playing friends, just because I know it’s going to be a good match,” Kubler said of the challenge of facing a fellow Aussie.

Edben, a No.317-ranked wildcard, will rue missed chances in the two-hour and 25-minute match. He earned 12 break points, but could only convert four.

The 27-year-old Kubler, on the other hand, made the most of his opportunites. A winning rate of 80 per cent on break points helped him record his first career win at the Australian Open.

“I haven’t played a professional match since March, so it’s crazy to be in that situation again,” Kubler said. “We had those UTR events in Australia and I played a few of them, but unluckily I got a little bit injured so I wasn’t able to get much match play.

“I just tried to dig in and play well on the big points.”

Kubler, a former world No.91 who is looking to restore his ranking after dealing with wrist and elbow injuries in recent seasons, faces Ukrainian Sergiy Stakhovsky in the next round.

Santillan, Mott eliminated

Earlier on Sunday, fellow Australians Akira Santillan and Blake Mott fell in their first-round matches.

Santillan stretched No.27-seeded Swiss left-hander Marc-Andrea Huesler to three sets before going down 6-3 3-6 6-3, while Swede Elias Ymer was too strong in a 6-4 6-3 victory over Mott.

Australian Open 2021 qualifying – day one results

Women’s singles, first round – Dubai
Ellen Perez (AUS) d Caroline Dolehide (USA) 6-3 5-7 7-5

Men’s singles, first round – Doha 
[WC] Rinky Hijikata (AUS) d Christoper Eubanks (USA) 6-2 6-3
[WC] Jason Kubler (AUS) d [WC] Matthew Ebden (AUS) 7-5 2-6 6-4
[27] Marc-Andrea Huesler (SUI) d [WC] Akira Santillan (AUS) 6-3 3-6 6-3
Elias Ymer (SWE) d Blake Mott (AUS) 6-4 6-3