The Olympics are up and running and the women’s singles draw features all 6 major finalists this year in the 64-player field, all harbouring dreams of winning the gold medal in Tokyo.
It was very tough when I saw the draw that I’m playing her in the first round but I think I managed to play really well after the 5-2. I made a lot of balls and it went well in the end. I actually like these conditions. It’s great to play in these conditions. I grew up playing in the heat. Maybe not that humid, but heat is the way we grew up playing in Greece and I actually embrace that. Maria Sakkari
World No 2 Naomi Osaka beat Jennifer Brady in the Australian Open to start the year, while No 11 Barbora Krejcikova held off Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova at Roland Garros, and Ash Barty, the top seed, prevailed over Karolina Pliskova at Wimbledon.
The worldwide pandemic forced the postponement of the 2020 Olympic Games and, one year later, has created challenges for organisers and participants.
It fell to Iga Swiatek of Poland to get things going, and she did so in rip-roaring fashion on her Olympic debut, as she defeated Mona Barthel of Germany, 6-2 6-2, in the opening round of the Tokyo 2020 Games, needing just 67 minutes to oust the former Top 25 player on Centre Court at Ariake Tennis Park.
“It was a special moment for me,” Swiatek told the ITF after her win. “I know that right now I really feel the Olympic vibe.”
Pavlyuchenkova, this year’s Roland Garros runner-up and the No 13 seed, also had a quick start to her Olympic campaign, dispatching former Top 5 player Sara Errani of Italy, 6-0 6-1.
The top singles player representing the Russian Olympic Committee, Pavlyuchenkova converted 7 of her 12 break points in the 70-minute clash, matching her second-round performance from the 2016 Rio Games.
No 15 seed Elena Rybakina of Kazakhstan also clinched a straight-set victory on opening day, defeating former US Open champion Samantha Stosur of Australia, 6-4 6-2, in a match which also lasted 70 minutes.
Switzerland’s Viktorija Golubic, a quarter-finalist at Wimbledon earlier this month, notched a quick first-round victory as well, the World No 50 becoming the first winner of the day as she eased past Colombian teenager Maria Camila Osorio Serrano, 6-4 6-1.
Golubic took slightly under an hour to quell the challenge from the 19-year-old, who won her first WTA singles title on home soil in Bogota earlier this year.
Having made her Top 50 debut after her run to the last 8 at Wimbledon, Golubic continued her hot form in Tokyo, winning nearly 60 percent of points when returning the Colombian’s service.
Another teenager, Canada’s Leylah Fernandez, did pick up a win in the first round, though, when the 18-year-old outlasted Dayana Yastremska of Ukraine, 6-3 3-6 6-0, in just over 2 hours of play.
Maria Sakkari, the No 14 seed defeated Estonia’s Anett Kontaveit, 7-5 6-2, determined to take home a medal for her home country of Greece at these Olympics and notching up her 350th win on the WTA tour and winning 11 of the last 13 games in the process.
The draining Tokyo heat and humidity is hardly the favourite feature of this Olympic Games for many athletes, but Sakkari is relishing the testing temperatures at Ariake Tennis Park.
“I think it was probably the toughest first round I could get,” Sakkari admitted. “Anett is an exceptional player. We’ve played each other so many times.
“It was very tough when I saw the draw that I’m playing her in the first round but I think I managed to play really well after the 5-2. I made a lot of balls and it went well in the end. I actually like these conditions.”
The Athens-born 25-year-old developed her game in similar conditions as a youngster and the experience will serve her well at the Tokyo Games.
“It’s great to play in these conditions,” she reiterated. “I grew up playing in the heat. Maybe not that humid, but heat is the way we grew up playing in Greece and I actually embrace that.
“It’s normal [that players react differently], if you put me in minus 20 degrees I would also struggle.
“It’s different conditions for everyone. [Kontaveit] is from the north of Europe and it’s normal [that she would feel the heat more]. I have to say. Many players will struggle with the heat.”
Sakkari proved her mettle as a potential medal contender in Tokyo with her run to the semi-finals at Roland Garros in June.
The field in front of her may be formidable this week, but the Greek believes that overcoming an early test will serve her well for the challenges to come at the tournament.
“It was great to have a tough match in the beginning,” she said. “It’s the Olympics – it’s probably the best players in the world [here], especially in the women’s draw. We don’t have a lot of players who aren’t playing here. It’s going to be a battle every match I play but I’m ready for it.”
Since falling to Swiatek in Rome’s Round of 16, Krejcikova has been a revelation, winning 20 of 21 matches and taking the titles in Strasbourg and at Roland Garros plus, after a fourth-round effort at Wimbledon, she recently won the title in Prague.
The 25-year old is part of a strong Czech Republic contingent that includes No 5 seed Karolina Pliskova and two-time Wimbledon champion Petra Kvitova, who is the only player in the singles field with an Olympic medal (bronze, 2016, Rio de Janeiro).
Her opponent, Zarina Diyas, is a 27-year-old from Kazakhstan, who reached the quarter-finals at the Ladies Open Lausanne 2021 a week ago, but the third match played on Centre Court proved a step too far and she retired with the score standing at 5-2 in Krejcikova’s favour when she retired.
American Jessica Pegula has had some outstanding results in 2021, making the quarters at the Australian Open, and defeating Victoria Azarenka and Elina Svitolina in the process.
The 27-year old qualified in Doha and knocked off Karolina Pliskova for the first of 4 times this year, along with Dubai, Miami and Berlin.
Switzerland’s Belinda Bencic has reached two finals this season, in Adelaide and Berlin, and is seeded 9th in Tokyo where she opened her account with an impressive 6-3 6-3 win over Pegula in the 3rd round on Court 1.
In other results on Day 1, home hope Misaki Doi, ranked 94, got past Mexico’s Renata Zarazua, 6-3 6-2, but her 77th-ranked Japanese compatriot Nao Hibino was beaten by Serbia’s Nina Stojanovic, 6-3 6-3.
Sweden’s Rebecca Peterson won a tight match with Maiar Sherif from Egypt, 7-5 7-6(1); while Spain’s Paula Badosa outlasted Kristina Mladenovic from France, 7-6(4) 6-3 6-0; and Romania’s Mihaela Buzarnescu, ranked 168, upset American Alison Riske, ranked 36, 6-7(0) 75 6-4.
Finally, former World No 4 Kiki Bertens bid farewell to her career as a singles tennis player on Saturday after a tough 3-set defeat to Czech Marketa Vondrousova, 4-6 6-3 6-4.
The 29-year-old from the Netherlands, who will still be competing in the women’s and mixed doubles events, announced in June that she planned to retire at the end of 2021, but confirmed this week that she would call it a day following the Games.
Bertens, who will end her career as the 21st-ranked player, told Reuters she had no regrets about bringing the curtains down, having made the decision in part due to a lingering Achilles injury for which she underwent surgery last year.
“I think I can be really proud of myself. I would have never dreamed what I’ve achieved,” she said after her match. “There’s so many memories, so many great people I’ve met over the years. I’m just going away with a happy face and no regrets.”
Bertens added she gave it her all in a tense match played to empty stands after organisers banned spectators to prevent the spread of the coronavirus.
“[Crowds] would have been nice of course. But on the other hand I had my whole team behind me today. They were supporting me every single point,” Bertens said.
“I know my family and my close friends are watching from home. I had this feeling on the court that they were with me. I was just fighting but it was not enough.”
After falling behind a set to start the match, Bertens put on a spirited performance, coming back against 41st-ranked Vondrousova to take the second set 6-3, but she was unable to capitalise on the momentum, going down a break in the third game of the final set.
She saved two match points on Vondrousova’s serve in the final game but could not manage a third, hitting a backhand long to send the Czech into the second round of the Olympics for the first time.
15 matches were completed on Day 1, and on Sunday, the two top seeds are in action as Barty takes on Sara Sorribes Tormo from Spain and Osaka faces China’s Saisai Zheng on Centre Court.