Brisbane | Osaka wins as Stephens slams organisers
With the two top seeds, Ash Barty and Karolina Pliskova, yet to see action at the Brisbane International, it was up to Naomi Osaka to kick off her 2020 season with a testing win over Maria Sakkari on Tuesday.
It was what the ATP wanted — they got what they wanted, girls to the side, that’s kind of how it always is. I think, obviously, business is business, Sloane Stephens
The two-time Grand Slam champion went the distance before prevailing, 6-2 6-7(7) 6-3, firing 16 aces in the process and breaking her Greek opponent 4 times in the 2 hour 7minute encounter.
She struggled, however, in the second set tiebreak when Sakkari won 5 points in a row before squaring the match on an unforced error from the Japanese.
The pair traded breaks in the opening stages of the final set before former World No 1 Osaka clinched victory, despite double faulting on her first match point.
“I knew going into it that it was going to be a really hard match,” Osaka said.
“I think in the second set I was just complaining a lot in the tiebreak. I was just trying to calm down and stay positive.”
Former US Open champion Sloane Stephens, currently No 24 in the WTA rankings, fell at her first hurdle to Liudmila Samsonova, a Russian who is ranked more than 100 places below her.
The 129th ranked Russian won 6-4 2-6 6-3, leaving Stephens to accuse organisers of favouring the male players and not respecting the women.
The WTA tournament is being run alongside the Brisbane leg of the men’s inaugural ATP Cup, which has monopolised the centre court of the Queensland Tennis Centre since it began on Friday.
The ATP Cup’s last round-robin matches in Brisbane will be played on Wednesday, meaning women’s matches are relegated to the stadium and outside courts until Thursday.
While most of the women players have been reluctant to comment on their treatment this year, Stephens, who is on the WTA Players’ Council, was not so reticent.
“I think there’s been a lot of challenges just because it’s a new event, combined with the girls, whatever, there’s definitely been some challenges,” she said.
“I think that when you’re a number one player in the world who is going to play on the side court, I don’t think that that’s great. I think it’s kind of a respect thing.”
Australia’s World No 1 Barty heads the high-quality field at the WTA Brisbane, which includes 4 of the women’s top 5, and Stephens insists the women have been sidelined in favour of the men.
“We just weren’t in the conversation to even be considered,” she said.
“It was what the ATP wanted — they got what they wanted, girls to the side, that’s kind of how it always is.
“I think, obviously, business is business,” Stephens added.
“Their priority was the ATP Cup. I just feel like in general there could have been some things done differently.”
Stephens’ compatriot and 8th seed Madison Keys advanced with a 6-3 6-2 win over Marie Bouzkova, ending the Czech’s run from qualifying.
Also safely through into the next round is 6th seeded Dutchwoman Kiki Bertens after her tricky encounter with Ukraine’s Dayana Yastremska, 6-2 1-6 6-3.
Meanwhile, another qualifier, Yulia Putinseva from Kazakstan, upset Croatia’s Donna Vekic, 6-3 3-6 7-5, after a 2 hour 31 minute battle on the stadium court.
In the second to last match of the day, Petra Kvitova, the No 5 seed from the Czech Republic survived a scare against Russia’s Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova, ultimately shaking off the rust to find her way through, 2-6 6-1 6-0 in just over an hour and three quarters.
The final match saw Maria Sharapova, who received a wild card into the main draw, taking on the American qualifier Jennifer Brady, for the chance to meet Barty on Thursday in her first match since losing in the first round of the US Open last September.
Sharapova donated $25,000 to help those affected by the bushfires that have ravaged large parts of Australia, with New South Wales and Victoria hugely impacted.
Sportspeople been rallying to raise funds for the victims and Novak Djokovic has since matched Sharapova’s donation.
“The month of January in Australia has been my [home emoji] for the past 15 years,” Sharapova wrote on Twitter.
“Watching the fires destroy the lands, its beautiful families and communities of animals is deeply [heartbreak emoji].
“I would like to begin my donation at 25K. @DjokerNole, would you match my donation? #letsallcometogether.”
Djokovic responded on Monday, writing: “Yes, @MariaSharapova I would like to match your $25k donation to double the aid sent to these communities. We stand by you, #Australia.”
On court, Sharapova stormed out of the blocks before Brady found her stride.
The American had breezed through the qualifying rounds and clearly was more used to the conditions than her Russian opponent, counter-punching her big hitting game and outlasting her 3-6 6-1 7-6(3) after 2 hours and 14 minutes of enthralling play.
Sharapova won the 2015 edition of the tournament, having reached the semi-finals 12 months earlier, but after making a positive start to her third visit, she found herself frustrated by the World No 53, who offered more consistency than the five-time Grand Slam champion.
The Russian’s 2019 campaign was devastated by an arm injury, and she showed few signs of rust in the opening set but, upon closer examination, was found to be short of sharpness by an opponent who did not make a single unforced error in the second set.
The decider saw her trademark competitive spirit come to the fore, batting off a break point that would have seen her opponent serve for the match, but the tiebreak proved a bridge too far.
It was the first set that Brady had lost all week, having come through three qualifying matches unscathed, and so it was little surprise that she buckled down to complicate life further for her 32-year-old rival.
As the match progressed, Sharapova’s lack of competitive practice became more evident, and while her game was not at its absolute best, the months away from the match court have not dented her competitive spirit.
When placed under pressure in the decider, she responded emphatically, notably in a lengthy 6th game, as the players remained locked together into the tiebreak.
It was Brady who emerged victorious in sudden death, setting up a meeting with the World No 1 Ash Barty.