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Hosting a blockbuster card of players and the biggest crowd tennis has seen in over a year, A Day at the Drive gave us a taste of what’s to come next week.

In unusual scenes for many across the world, thousands of fans packed out the Memorial Drive Tennis Centre on Friday for the A Day at the Drive exhibition tournament. 

Over 4,000 patrons watched on from the gantries of Adelaide’s purpose-built tennis stadium as a blockbuster card of players showcased their tennis skills. 

In fact, this was the largest crowd that has attended a tennis tournament since the coronavirus pandemic gripped the world early last year. 

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And the atmosphere was electric. 

Simona Halep and Ashleigh Barty lapped up the noise from the crowd as they walked onto the court, both receiving a huge rally of cheers from the Adelaide patrons. 

“I really missed you guys,” world No.2 Simona Halep said to the fans in her post-match interview. “Playing in front of you was a pleasure.” 

“Actually, I was very nervous, I felt like it was the first time playing a match [in front of fans].

It speaks volumes to the work Tennis Australia have done to facilitate the summer of tennis in a safe environment, while also providing a testament to the wider Australian public who have sacrificed a lot to stamp out the virus. 

On court, fans were treated to a true exhibition of tennis, with Ashleigh Barty and Simona Halep putting on a classy display of skill and power, proving why they are currently the two best players in the world. 

The reigning Wimbledon champion ultimately secured the win, coming back from a set down to beat her Australian opponent 6-3 1-6 8-10 in a third set tiebreak.

And the fans were treated to some wonderful tennis with both players hitting some incredible trick shots. 

Having not played in over a year, Ash Barty looked to be back to her grand slam winning form of 2019, smashing a whopping 17 winners past her opponent during the match. 

“It’s just been great to be back,” Barty said in a post-match interview. “I’ve been getting a little bit impatient over the last two or three months getting ready to play.” 

“I’m so excited to get started next week.” 

“I love playing in front of you guys [fans]. It’s pretty amazing to think of where we’ve been over the last twelve months, and to now have a near-full crowd here, it’s remarkable.” 

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Williams vs Osaka: An exhibition of class

Earlier in the day, Serena Williams beat World No.3 Naomi Osaka 6-2 2-6 10-7, in a gripping match that also came down to a nail-biting third-set tiebreaker. 

Osaka was slow to find her rhythm at first, and Williams capitalised on Osaka’s second serve to take the opening set. 

But the world No.3 came back, breaking the 23-time major champion twice in the second set to take the match to a third set tiebreak. 

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And despite Osaka managing to save four match points in the tiebreak, Williams powered through to win the match.  

Both players were also enamoured by the crowd with Osaka stating in her post-match interview, “just to play in front of you guys [fans] is really amazing.

Rafa’s back!

In a repeat of last year’s ATP Nitto Finals group tie, Rafael Nadal faced off against Dominic Thiem in what was, again, an exhibition of sheer skill and power. 

Although this time Nadal got the better of his opponent, beating the Austrian in straight sets 7-5 6-4.

But it wasn’t all plain sailing for the Spaniard. 

Forcing Nadal to play late into both sets before he could break him, Thiem hit 6 Aces and 18 winners past the world No.2, testing the French Open champion on his own serve. 

But it was Rafa’s resilience to hold out on the 27-year-old’s advances that won him the match, and he finished the game off in style, looping a cute volley to the back of Thiem’s court. 

Djokovic makes a surprise return

After initially withdrawing from his match with Jannik Sinner due to injury, Australian Open reigning champion Novak Djokovic surprised fans by coming back onto the court to play out the second set of the match.

The Serbian had been struggling with a nasty looking blister on his palm, and initially stood aside to let his playing partner Filip Krajinovic face off against 19-year-old Sinner. 

But after Krajinovic took the first set 6-3, Djokovic came onto the court to a rapturous applause from the Adelaide crowd and took over from his compatriot to win the match 6-3 6-3. 

“I am sorry I didn’t step on the court from the beginning. I had to do some treatment with my physio, I wasn’t feeling my best the past couple of days, I wasn’t sure how I was going to react [to come out of quarantine],” Djokovic said after the match.

Having an ATP Cup and Australian Open around the corner, you don’t want to risk it too much. But the emotion was so strong in me to come out on the court today, seeing these full stands I had to play.”

Djokovic will join up again with countryman Krajinovic on Tuesday as the pair look to defend Serbia’s title at this year’s ATP Cup.  

Featured Image: Sydney International Tennis WTA by RobPJKeating // https://www.flickr.com/photos/14041643@N00/33040181178 // Licensed with CC BY-SA 2.0. To view a copy of this license, visit https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0/Download permissions

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