The start of Day four in Melbourne was delayed for an hour on Thursday for a court tidy-up with pressure washers on outside courts after heavy overnight rain deposited a thick layer of dust around the city.
So prevalent was the red dirt picked up from bushfire ravaged areas of the state that the Yarra river turned a drab rusty colour.
The dirt dump was the latest weather calamity to strike the first Grand Slam of the season in a city often noted for having four seasons in a day.
Winds and bushfires in the eastern part of the start contributed to critical conditions a week ago during qualifying rounds where players complained of breathing difficulties in heavy smog.
Second-round matches on the three covered show courts managed to progress on schedule, with Swiss sixth seed Belinda Bencic carving out a comfortable 7-5, 7-5 win over former Roland Garros winner Jelena Ostapenko.
Bencic dropped serve five times but broke her Latvian opponent on seven occasions to win only her third career match against a former Grand Slam champion.
The 45th-ranked Ostapenko, who won Paris in a 2017 surprise, suffered her earliest loss at a major in five years.
“This is exactly the kind of match I had expected,” Bencic said. “Three games she plays great, then three games with a little bit more unforced errors.
“For her that is totally normal. I’m happy I didn’t panic when things weren’t going my way.
“In practice you can feel which level you are and how you’re feeling. I feel like I’m getting better and better with matches, with time.
“It’s going into the good direction.”
Second seed Karolina Pliskova, maintained her strong record in Grand Slam second-round matches, defeating German Laura Siegemund 6-3, 6-3.
The Czech has not lost at this stage at a major since 2017. “Here so far the weather keep changing. But I think I am more used to it. I like Australia. I always play well here.
” Of course it’s only third round now, but I have played a lot of matches already, so I feel confident. I feel good enough to continue.”
A year ago here, Pliskova eliminated Serena Williams from title contention with a stirring semi-final comeback to keep the American from the record 24th grand Slam title she is yet to achieve.
She has won both of her matches at this edition in straight sets, taking 86 minutes to put down Siegemund.
The Czech seed won with eight aces and 22 total winners.
Fourth seed Simona Halep accounted for British qualifier Harriet Dart with a 6-2, 6-4 victory, but the former No. 1 ran into friction trying to close it out.
The Romanian was cruising to a quick win when she was broken while serving for victory. Halep finally finished it off two games later after on a fourth match point.
“It was a little bit dangerous,” Halep said. “I lost focus at the end and she started to play very well.
“It was difficult for me to hold on. But I’m happy I went through.
“I like to play under pressure, it’s more fun and more excitement – but I also prefer to close out matches when I have the chance.”
Former Paris and Wimbledon titleholder Garbine Muguruza imposed her game on Australian Ajla Tomljanovic 6-3, 3-6, 6-3.
The winner, who three years ago stood atop the WTA list but now ranks 32nd after a run of injuries and poor form advanced in a match where the Laver court roof had to be closed for morning rain.
The 2016 Paris and 2017 Wimbledon champion has since gone dry at the majors, with a French Open semi-final two years ago her only notable result.
“It was a tough battle. We both fight until the end,” the 26-year-old said. “Alja played very well, so I had to level out my game and stay in the fight until the last moment.
”She pushed me and I pushed her. At the end on the third set, it was very close for both of us.
“I’m just happy the way I played and how I managed to close it out in those final games.”
Muguruza has pulled up fit here after withdrawing from a quarter-final in Hobart last week with viral illness. She has gone through a pair of three-set matches to get this far at Melbourne Park.
The Spaniard revealed her personal challenge set for later this year – scaling Africa’s Mount Kilimanjaro: “I really like the experience to see myself in the middle of nowhere and just having one clear thought just to keep climbing.”
Croat Donna Vekic broke new ground by reaching the Melbourne third round fof the first time after seven previous attempts.
She got there by defeating France’s Alize Cornet 6-2, 6-4 in 91 minutes.
Angelique Kerber, the 2016 champion, schooled wild card Priscilla Hon, 6-3, 6-2 as the local played the main draw for the first time.
Kerber, with three Grand Slam titles in her resume, broke seven times in the victory over an opponent with 33 unforced errors.
American Cici Bellis, who last played a major here two years ago before going through a serious injury crisis, earned a morale-boosting win into the third round as she defeated Czech Karolina Muchova 6-4, 6-4.