Whole different ball game for crowd at Wickmayer match

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By Greg Stutchbury

MELBOURNE (Reuters) - While rain forced delays and cancellations on the opening day of the Australian Open, it failed to dampen the spirits of spectators at the opening grand slam of the year.

Yanina Wickmayer's first round match against Romania's Alexandra Dulgheru stretched over six hours due to two lengthy rain delays that forced players off court. Wickmayer finally triumphed 1-6 7-5 10-8.

With long spells of inactivity at the Margaret Court Arena showcourt, fans managed to keep themselves amused with chants and handclapping, and by batting around a large blue and white Australian beachball.

When a gust of wind blew the ball on court before Wickmayer and Dulgheru returned for the final time, it appeared their fun was at an end as officials moved in to pick it up.

But with the crowd pleading to have their ball back, a young tournament official returned it over the fence, prompting chants of: "The ballkid's a legend!"

As the players warmed up again after the second rain delay, the crowd continued a chant they had adopted in the shorter rain breaks -- describing each shot Wickmayer practiced as she struggled to keep warm in the chilly wind.

"Backhand. Forehand. Backhand. Backhand," they chanted before play finally resumed.

Dulgheru, who was serving at 40-15 with the score locked at 7-7 in the final set, held to take an 8-7 lead. Wickmayer also held serve, then broke Dulgheru before sealing victory after almost 3- hours on court.

"The rain delays were not that easy, but (I) tried to kept hanging in there, just tried to do what I had to do," Wickmayer told reporters.

"I know I wasn't playing great. So the only thing I could get through this match was to fight for every point, just be ready for a long fight, just try to improve every point, and try to play more aggressive."

Wickmayer had to qualify for the tournament, despite being ranked 16th in the world, because she was ineligible to enter the main draw for the registrations in November due to a suspension, which has since been revoked. When asked if she thought it was right for her to go through qualifying, Wickmayer replied she should have been in the main draw due to her world ranking.

"I've asked myself that question a lot of times (but) I knew I was going to have to play quallies," the Belgian added.

"I knew it a couple of weeks before, so I could prepare myself for the qualifying matches, which was, in a way, positive."

"I'm pretty tired. (I) had a long day. Had a long match. (I will) have a day off tomorrow (and) hope will be fit to start again in two days."

(Editing by Peter Rutherford)