Tennis: Seven-hour practice sessions put Zverev back on track at Australian Open, Thiem scrapes through

Germany's Alexander Zverev celebrates winning the match against Belarus' Egor Gerasimov at the Australia Open in Melbourne on Jan 23, 2020.
Germany's Alexander Zverev celebrates winning the match against Belarus' Egor Gerasimov at the Australia Open in Melbourne on Jan 23, 2020.PHOTO: REUTERS

MELBOURNE (AFP, REUTERS) - Alexander Zverev said his tennis game was on the up after a poor start to the year as he came through three tight sets to beat 98th-ranked Egor Gerasimov at the Australian Open on Thursday (Jan 23).

The German seventh seed has been practising up to seven hours a day after a dismal ATP Cup and the hard work paid off as he safely reached the third round.

"Definitely much better than the ATP Cup. Now in the third round, I'm very happy about that," said the 22-year-old, who beat Italy's Marco Cecchinato in round one.

Meanwhile, world No. 5 Dominic Thiem survived a five-set scare after being pushed hard by gutsy home hope Alex Bolt.

The Austrian, targeting a maiden Grand Slam crown, looked fragile as the crowd got behind the wild card but ultimately prevailed 6-2, 5-7, 6-7 (5-7), 6-1, 6-2 in 3hr 22min.

Earlier, fourth seed Daniil Medvedev overcame a nosebleed and stiff resistance from Spanish qualifier Pedro Martinez to book his third-round ticket.

The Russian was pressed hard in a competitive first set before grinding down the 22-year-old 7-5, 6-1, 6-3 with the roof closed on Margaret Court Arena.

"It was not easy, especially the first set but I managed to stay there the whole match and came through because he has less experience," said Medvedev, who won four titles last year and was runner-up at the US Open.

"I tried to push him all the time and that worked well today. Today was much better than my first match."

The highest seed behind the Big Three of Rafael Nadal, Novak Djokovic and Roger Federer, Medvedev struggled to get going against a tenacious player making his Australian Open debut. But his strength and big serve ultimately counted, with 19 aces.

Thiem is among a clutch of players tipped to win a Major after reaching the last two Roland Garros finals, but he was exposed at times by a player ranked 140 who controlled much of the second and third sets.

"It was a tough match, Alex played great and he had the crowd support," said Thiem, who has never gone past the fourth round in six previous attempts.

As for the 1.98m Zverev, he had sent down so many double faults at the ATP Cup that Swiss player Belinda Bencic suggested he donate to Australia's bush-fires appeal for each one.

But his serve, a key focus of his extended practices, was a weapon once again on Thursday as he fired nine aces against no double faults, with a first-serve percentage of 78 per cent.

"Sometimes it's difficult, sometimes it's easy," he said when asked what it was like trying to rediscover form.

"The last week or so when we were practising, we were spending six or seven hours a day on court trying all kinds of things to find my game."

Zverev will next play Fernando Verdasco or Nikoloz Basilashvili as he attempts to match his best Australian Open result after reaching the round of 16 last year.

In the women's draw, Romanian fourth seed Simona Halep powered into the third round, defeating British qualifier Harriet Dart 6-2, 6-4 in only 77 minutes.

Windy conditions on Rod Laver Arena saw the pair trading breaks of serve at the start of the match before Halep steadied the ship, winning four games in a row before serving out the set.

The two-time Grand Slam champion wavered slightly as she failed to serve out the match while 5-2 up in the final set, but she completed the job at the second time of asking to set up a meeting with either 26th seed American Danielle Collins or Kazakhstan's Yulia Putintseva.

Despite the loss, Dart's performance was a marked improvement on her appearance at last year's Open, when she was beaten by Maria Sharapova in the opening round without winning a single game.

In the morning, second seed Karolina Pliskova had breezed through to the third round, dispatching Germany's Laura Siegemund 6-3, 6-3.

Siegemund, who had won their only previous meeting in 2017, at times challenged Pliskova with her variety and skills at the net but ultimately could not match the Czech's power from the baseline.

Pliskova was down 1-3 in the first set but never looked in danger of losing, immediately breaking her 72nd-ranked opponent in the next game to get back on serve. The Czech clinched the victory in an hour and 26 minutes and will next face either Russia's Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova or American Taylor Townsend.