A valiant Alicia Molik on Sunday delved into her deep bag of tricks to escape with a cherished first WTA victory in two years and set up an intriguing clash with fellow comeback queen Kim Clijsters.
Molik scrambled brilliantly to save five crucial break points as she struggled late in the third set before prevailing over lanky Russian Ekaterina Makarova 6-4 1-6 6-4 at the Brisbane International.
The Pat Rafter Arena crowd went crazy for the former world No.8 as she broke the left-hander to love and booked a place in the second round against long-time friend Clijsters on Tuesday.
It ended a 24-month drought for the tall South Australian product, whose last top-tier victory came at the 2008 Australian Open.
Like Clijsters, she spent more than a year out of the game and announced her comeback midway through 2009 but unlike the Belgian played low-tier whistlestop tournaments around Australia while her former doubles partner immediately starred by claiming the US Open.
The 27-year-old was more than happy to run head first into the tournament top seed, who she rates “an inspiration”, to continue a friendly on-court rivalry which started 13 years ago on the junior tour.
“This is what it’s all about, and tomorrow is what it’s all about as well,” an overjoyed Molik said. “She [Clijsters] is the form player on tour and the type of player you really want to match your game up against.
“This time of year you get a really good gauge of where you’re at.
“I was so happy to see her come back. We do go a long way back, I think our first match together was when we were 14 [in Europe].
“It’s been a long road, and a nice road as well … [but we] will put the friendship aside for two hours.”
Clijsters, particularly impressive in her 6-2 6-1 thumping of Italian veteran Tathiana Garbin, was also happy to see Molik back.
“She’s always been one of the most down-to-earth people on tour,” she said. “We grew up playing together and I know her really well.”
While Clijsters, who holds a 2-0 head to head advantage between the pair, couldn’t see Molik’s serve-volley game changing much, the Australian mixed her all-court game up a lot more against the Russian baseliner with a series of slices and chips.
It was superior fitness that Molik believed got her over the line as Makarova increasingly became frustrated she could not ice the win despite having a litany of chances, including twice having double break points.
Molik, match hardened after playing 40 Pro Tour matches in four months, saved them the hard way: with a lunge volley, ace, drop shot and twice scrambling desperately when virtually out of play.
Clijsters endured a rusty start against Garbin, serving two double faults in dropping the opening game, but it didn’t take her long to find her rhythm, winning 10 of the last 11 games to wrap up the match in 53 minutes.
There was the odd embarrassing moment for the world No.18 who missed two regulation smashes in the one-sided second set, including an air swing on one.
“The smashes could have been a bit better but I’m really happy I came to Brisbane because it makes the transition to Melbourne easier.”
Monday is the one-year anniversary since Clijsters father and coach Leo died of cancer.
In other matches today, American Vania King defeated Sybille Bammer, while the powerful all-American combination of Andy Roddick and James Blake was too strong for Jaroslav Levinsky and Travis Parrott in the first round of the men’s doubles.
In the second round of men’s qualifying, top seed Xavier Malisse moved one step away from a main draw singles berth with a 7-5 6-3 win over Australian Matheson Klein. Other qualifying winners included Australians Nick Lindahl, Kaden Hensel, Matt Reid, Marinko Matosevic and Matt Ebden.