Storm blows into French Open to double women's hopes
On the last afternoon of qualifying at Roland Garros, Storm Hunter has blown some welcome momentum into the Australian women's challenge at the French Open.
Kim Birrell had faced the lonely prospect of being the only Australian woman in the main draw - and only then because she landed a wildcard through her national federation's reciprocal arrangement with its French counterparts.
But the experienced and combative Hunter ensured 25-year-old Birrell will have company when the big show kicks off on Sunday after she beat US teen Ashlyn Krueger 7-6 (7-3) 7-5 in her final-round qualifier at Roland Garros.
It's given the Queenslander a challenging but winnable opening-round contest with Spain's world No.93 Nuria Parrizas Diaz, a decent reward for the woman who competed in Paris as Storm Sanders in 2021 but has since got married.
It was a tough contest with Krueger but Hunter's experience saw her hold tough in the late stages of both sets against the 19-year-old, who's risen to No.162 in the rankings.
Hunter, the star of Australia's run to the BJK Cup final last year, has a singles ranking of 202 which really doesn't reflect her true potential as she concentrates on doubles at which she's soared to a high-flying world No.5.
Indeed, she and Belgian Elise Mertens will be among the favourites for the doubles crown in Paris.
But successfully negotiating the qualifying minefield for the second time in three years, Hunter, who hails from Rod Laver's home town of Rockhampton, can feel confident as the first Australian woman to earn qualification twice at Roland Garros since Michelle Jaggard-Lai in 1994.
Successful French Open qualifying campaigns are rare for Australian women, with only Rachel McQuillan in 1996, Sophie Ferguson in 2010 and Olivia Rogowska in 2015 also achieving the feat.
But hopes that, in the absence of the injured stars Ajla Tomljanovic and Daria Saville, three Australian women might still make the main draw were quickly extinguished earlier on Friday when Melbourne's 23-year-old Jaimee Fourlis was ground down by experienced French wildcard Fiona Ferro 6-3 2-6 6-4 in her 'final'.
Sydney's Alexei Popyrin has, meanwhile, learned that he's drawn the one qualifier no-one wanted in the first-round - Aslan Karatsev.
The tough Russian, who burst into prominence at the 2021 Australian Open when he made a spectacular run to the semi-finals, has shown a recent dramatic revival by reaching the Madrid Open semis and shooting back up to No.62 in the world rankings. He also didn't lose a set in qualifying.
Jason Kubler, though, won't be too unhappy with his first-round opponent being Facundo Diaz Acosta, an Argentine who actually got beaten in his final-round qualifier but who's been given a reprieve as a 'lucky loser'.
WHO THE AUSSIES PLAY IN THE FRENCH OPEN FIRST ROUND (PREFIX DENOTES SEEDING):
18-Alex de Minaur v Ilya Ivashka (BLR)
Max Purcell v Jordan Thompson
Jason Kubler v Facundo Diaz Acosta (ARG)
Alexei Popyrin v Aslan Karatsev (RUS)
Chris O'Connell v Taro Daniel (JPN)
Thanasi Kokkinakis v 20-Dan Evans (GBR)
Kim Birrell v Leolia Jeanjean (FRA)
Storm Hunter v Nuria Parrizas Diaz (ESP)