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Dominic Thiem grinds past Mikhail Kukushkin in straight sets to advance at the Australian Open.

Thiem Passes Early Test Against Kukushkin At Australian Open

Austrian faced set point en route to second round

US Open champion Dominic Thiem had to dig deep to contain Mikhail Kukushkin in three sets on Rod Laver Arena, acing an early test as his Australian Open campaign kicked off on Monday.

He had to save set point in a tightly-contested opening set and battle for two hours and 42 minutes before he could move into the second round, 7-6(2), 6-2, 6-3.

“He played well,” said Thiem. “The first set was very, very close. One set point [for Kukushkin]… and that was the key point. I needed some time to get used to the fast and quick conditions, but in general it was a great first round of a Grand Slam… It's super nice that there is a crowd, and it was a nice atmosphere today. I definitely felt nerves because it was a long time until the Slam.”

Thiem, No. 3 in the FedEx ATP Rankings, reached the final here last year before losing to World No. 1 Novak Djokovic in a classic five-set clash. He came into this year’s event after representing Austria in the ATP Cup,  where he won one of two singles matches as his country bowed out in the group stage.

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He came out firing against Kukushkin, but he found himself in for a bigger test than he bargained for against the No. 89-ranked Kazakh player. Thiem had several chances to break in the opening set before he finally took a 4-2 lead. But Kukushkin refused to let him run away with it, injecting heavy pace into his shots and outhitting Thiem from the baseline as he broke back and took a 6-5 lead of his own.

With Kukushkin serving for it, Thiem employed patient tennis to save set point and send them into a tie break. Thiem extended the rallies and kept his opponent on the move, dragging Kukushkin out wide to set up his one-handed backhand for winners as he took the opening set.

Thiem dialed up the aggression in the second set, and was rewarded as Kukushkin began to misfire. The top-ranked Austrian punished Kukushkin as he attempted to mix in the drop shot, and finally broke through for a 3-2 lead after a marathon effort. Once Thiem found his way into the set, he took control and reeled off the next three games in a row to close out the set 6-2. He kept up the level in the final set, and last year’s finalist finished out the match with 29 winners as he moved on in Melbourne.

Thiem will face Dominik Koepfer of Germany in the second round. Last year's Rome quarter-finalist needed one hour and 44 minutes to move past lucky loser Hugo Dellien 7-5, 6-2, 6-4. No. 3 seed Thiem landed in a section of the draw that includes No. 18 seed Grigor Dimitrov and No. 12 seed Pablo Carreno Busta, with home favourite Nick Kyrgios also looming as an unseeded threat.

Eighth seed Diego Schwartzman made it through to the second round in Melbourne for the fifth straight year with a 7-6(3), 6-4, 2-6, 6-2 victory against Swedish qualifier Elias Ymer. The 2020 Nitto ATP Finals qualifier, who finished the ATP Cup with a 1-1 record, withstood 40 winners from Ymer to advance after three hours and seven minutes.

Schwartzman will meet lucky loser Alexandre Muller for a place in the third round. The Frenchman claimed his maiden tour-level victory with a 4-6, 6-3, 6-0, 6-3 comeback win against Juan Ignacio Londero on Court 6.

Egor Gerasimov eliminated 25th seed Benoit Paire to reach the second round in Melbourne for the second straight year. The Belarusian capitalised on 90 unforced errors from his opponent to record a 6-2, 2-6, 7-6(5), 7-5 victory.