One winner in battle of the Australians
At a stretch: James Duckworth playing Benjamin Mitchell. Photo: Sebastian Costanzo
AT 34 seconds past 5.30pm on Tuesday, an Australian not named Samantha Stosur won a match at the 2013 Australian Open.
It was inevitable, for the contest was between the surgeon's son from Sydney and the soapie star's little brother from the Gold Coast. Someone would fail to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory this time.
Mercifully, too, for Monday's national scorecard read 1-8, with only Stosur in the happy column at the Happy Slam, and Lleyton Hewitt the most prominent among the long and sad list of losers whose best result was the record $27,600 first-round prizemoney collect.
Indeed, by the time James Duckworth and Ben Mitchell had finished their lengthy and at-times laborious duel, the exits of John-Patrick Smith and Luke Saville had further deflated the tally to 1-10.
Marinko Matosevic would follow, beaten 6-4, 7-5, 6-2 by 12th seed Marin Cilic, to whom he had lost in five sets at last year's US Open after winning the first two. But the result was the same in the rematch and Matosevic's grand slam duck quacks on. ''Same stuff again like last year. Same shit summer,'' he said, with typical candour. ''I feel like I played OK the whole summer and I haven't got one set to show for it.''
There was quacking, too, on showcourt two, where Duckworth prevailed in five sets. There was no need for the Duckworth-Lewis method to split the two 183-centimetre 20-year-olds, although there was little else that did.
The longest match of the tournament so far lasted four hours, 26 minutes and was decided 6-4, 7-6 (10-8), 4-6, 5-7, 8-6.
It pitted close friends, practice partners and regular roommates - both wildcards and members of the Australian Institute of Sport program overseen by Brent Larkham - against each other. At stake: $45,500, at least, even if Duckworth fails to claim a winnable second round against unseeded Slovakian Blaz Kavcic. Plus valuable rankings points to aid the climb up the ladder.
The transition from decorated junior careers to the senior stage has proved to be a challenge that the vast majority of young Australians have failed to overcome. It is now Duckworth's: current ranking 223; highest 167th.
Both still have much to work on for, it must be said, the match was richer in drama and tension than in quality. Mitchell showed some signs of cramp while serving to stay in the match late in the fourth set but recovered to play some of his best tennis of the match immediately thereafter.
It came down to a fifth in which Mitchell was threatened in the second game and broken in the fourth, just after their common friend and neutral observer Saville had left the interview room.
''It's a hard one. We're all really good friends and it's tough to see that,'' Saville said after a four-set loss to Go Soeda, which the South Australian blamed on his physical rather than tennis deficiencies.
''There'll be one happy guy tonight in our room,'' Saville said. ''I'm staying with 'Ducks', and 'Mitch' is just below but we all go to dinner, and there'll be one disappointed guy tonight.''
That would be Mitchell, the more athletic of the pair, who retrieved that first break in the fifth but could not stave off another in the 14th, pushing a forehand long on Duckworth's second match point. ''I gave it my all and it was tough - $45,000 on the line and 45 ATP points to improve your ranking,'' he said.
''It is pretty tough when it comes down to a few points. But I fought to the end, which is something I can be proud of.''
The pair embraced, a weary Duckworth saving enough energy to hurl his sweat-soaked cap into the sun-soaked capacity crowd. Emotions mixed.
''Benny is one of my closest mates on tour,'' he said.
''We have known each other since we were about 10 or so. We've practised together; had the same coach for the last couple years.
''I guess it's tough playing someone, you know, who you're so close to. You want the best for them, but at the same time you have a job to do.''
But an Australian triumph, a rare one. ''We had to do a media interview before the match and I said then [that] hopefully the winner goes through and wins the tournament,'' Duckworth said.
So, um, what chance of that happening? ''Well, I'll have to play a bit better. I'm just looking forward to my next match, and hopefully I can do some damage then.''
Despite their shared height, Duckworth is thicker-set, stronger, almost barrel-chested, built like the rugby league player he thinks he would be if not for a tennis career and pedigree that can be traced back to the achievements of his grandmother, Beryl Penrose, who won both the Australian singles and doubles championships in 1955.
Both had made their grand slam debuts at Melbourne Park last year, Mitchell with an honourable loss to American beanstalk John Isner and Duckworth after taking a set from world No. 9 Janko Tipsarevic, following a sturdy opening win against Jurgen Zopp, which was one of only two by an Australian man not named Hewitt or Tomic.
This time, a single success. Through a match that not even Australia could find a way to lose.