MELBOURNE, Australia - This time last year, Lauren Davis, Jana Fett and Denisa Allertova were underdogs who thrilled the Australian Open crowds as they played the matches of their lives under the blazing sun. This year, in a reflection of how quickly the wheel can turn in the tennis world, all three were out of the tournament before this year's main draw had even been made after being eliminated at the first qualifying hurdle.
But another of the breakthrough stories from last year's tournament, Marta Kostyuk, withstood the pressure to begin her defence of third-round points with a 6-3, 7-5 win over Jana Cepelova - while two of last year's junior major champions, Wimbledon winner Iga Swiatek and US Open victor Wang Xiyu, made successful starts to their maiden Grand Slam qualifying campaigns.
Last January saw history made as No.1 seed Simona Halep faced No.2 seed Caroline Wozniacki in the Melbourne final: it was the first time in the Open Era that both Slam finalists had been forced to save match points en route to the title match. American Davis extended Halep to the third-longest match in tournament history in the third round, a 143-minute epic in which she had held three match points; Fett, meanwhile, had led Wozniacki 5-1 in the third set in the second round, missing an ace by inches on her first of two match points.
After their near misses, both went on to lean years over the rest of 2018. Fett, now ranked World No.220, has won just 10 matches since the Wozniacki encounter - and a 5-7, 6-2, 6-4 loss to No.12 seed Sofya Zhuk here extended the Croat's fallow period further. Davis, for her part, rebounded at the end of 2018 with a run to the Houston 125K final, and last week won her first WTA main draw match in nearly 12 months in Auckland - but had the misfortune to run into the big-hitting former World No.58 Beatriz Haddad Maia in the first round. The Brazilian is herself on the comeback trail from a back injury that sidelined her for three months last summer, and emerged a 6-3, 6-3 winner over Davis.
Garnering fewer headlines but going further than Fett and Davis, the Czech Republic's Allertova forged her way through qualifying and into the second week of a major for the first time last year. Since then, the 25-year-old has been beset by injuries, eventually going on hiatus after Wimbledon. In her first match since then, Allertova fell 6-3, 6-3 to No.29 seed Paula Badosa Gibert - but although the loss of her fourth-round points will result in a precipitous plummet from her current ranking of World No.152, it is a victory in itself that Allertova is again healthy enough to compete.
There was more positive news for 16-year-old Kostyuk, once again the youngest player in the qualifying competition. The Ukrainian has been open on social media about the pressure of defending 180 points in the next two weeks, and revealed to ausopen.com that she had "never felt so nervous before a match" today. Nonetheless, inspired by her Melbourne memories, the 2017 junior champion managed to run out a 6-3, 7-5 win over former World No.50 Jana Cepelova.
But than you see all of those messages of support and know everything will be great ❤ pic.twitter.com/CaDWCLP20Q
— Marta Kostyuk (@marta_kostyuk) January 7, 2019
As well as Kostyuk, two other teenagers made their mark - over slightly older teenagers. In a battle of 17-year-olds, reigning Wimbledon girls' titlist Iga Swiatek scored a dramatic 1-6, 7-6(4), 7-5 upset over No.2 seed Olga Danilovic; the pair have been squaring off since their U14 days, ending their junior careers with a tied 2-2 head-to-head, but the Pole - who has reached World No.178 without the aid of any WTA wildcards thus far - withstood a Danilovic comeback from 2-5 to 5-5 in the final set to seal the win.
Not to be outdone, 17-year-old reigning US Open champion Wang Xiyu, playing her first pro match since holding four match points over Daria Kasatkina in Wuhan last October, overpowered 18-year-old No.27 seed Claire Liu 6-3, 6-2 in just one hour and nine minutes.
Elsewhere, the 18-year-old Youth Olympic Games gold medallist Kaja Juvan also made an impressive Slam debut, emerging on top of a two-hour epic against former US Open semifinallist and No.17 seed Yanina Wickmayer 4-6, 6-4, 7-5, while Shenzhen quarterfinalist and No.7 seed Veronika Kudermetova carried her good form over with a 4-6, 6-1, 6-3 defeat of Jasmine Paolini. But 2013 Wimbledon runner-up Sabine Lisicki suffered a shock defeat to No.406-ranked wildcard Isabelle Wallace, committing 11 double faults and 57 unforced errors en route to falling 7-6(5), 7-5.
There was a heartwarming return to the Grand Slam stage, too, for former World No.59 Paula Ormaechea, competing at this level for the first time since Roland Garros 2015. For the past few years, the Argentine has ground away in the doldrums of the ITF circuit in a bid to get her career back to where it used to be - and the breakthrough finally came last year, when she raised her ranking from No.664 to No.264. The 26-year-old's comeback was a happy one as she notched up a 6-3, 6-2 win over South Korea's Han Na-Lae.