Australian Open defending champion Naomi Osaka produced a composed defeat of American Madison Brengle on Wednesday night to move a step closer to a blockbuster clash with top seed Ash Barty, while Maria Sakkari also advanced with a convincing win over young Chinese talent Zheng Qinwen.
I'm a bit of a perfectionist, so I feel, like, if I compare myself to the past, then I'll never be satisfied. I'm just trying to take it one day at a time. Naomi Osaka
“I’m just trying to take it one day at a time,” Osaka said. “The goal for me is just to have fun, and I’m really grateful to my team because I feel we are accomplishing that.
“I returned pretty well today. I’ve been really working on it during the offseason so glad it came in handy.”
The Japanese 13th seed raced through the first set, but had to work harder in the second on Rod Laver Arena before eliminating the 54th-ranked American, 6-0 6-4, in 65 minutes to make it into the 3rd round where she will meet another unseeded American, Amanda Anisimova, who upset Tokyo Olympic champion and 22nd seed Belinda Bencic, 6-2 7-5, earlier in the day.
The last time Osaka played Brengle was in the 2013 Rock Hill ITF W25 event, a day after her 16th birthday, when the American won, 6-2 6-2, but on this day, 8 years on, the Japanese turned the tables to concede just 4 games, and winning 24 of her past 25 matches in Melbourne dating back to 2019.
The first set was as dominant as the scoreline suggests, with Osaka wrapping it up in 20 minutes for the loss of just 9 points, 4 of which were in its final game.
When Brengle finally got on the scoreboard with a hold in the 2nd game of the second set, the 31-year-old raised her arms in mock triumph and some relief.
The World No 54’s canny defence and tricky slices began to draw errors from her opponent, particularly at the net, and Osaka had to stave off 3 break points with clutch serving, and then another 3 in her next service game but at, 3-3, the pressure finally told, and Brengle converted her 10th break point of the set when the Japanese sent a smash long to lead 4-3.
Osaka was looking increasingly brittle in her shot-making and sent frustrated looks towards her team, but the momentum swing was only temporary as she cleaned up her game, and resumed her first-set form to rattle off 12 of the last 13 points of the match, 8 of which were clean winners, and taking her overall total to 37, including her first 2 volley successes of the day.
It is an impressive return to competition after 4 months away from the game.
“I’m a bit of a perfectionist, so I feel, like, if I compare myself to the past, then I’ll never be satisfied,” she said when asked to rate her form on her return. “I’m just trying to take it one day at a time.”
Her next opponent, Anisimova, is on a 7-match winning streak after claiming the Melbourne Summer Set title in the build-up to the Grand Slam, and should pose Osaka a sterner test.
A junior prodigy, the American reached the 4th round here and the French Open semi-finals as a 17-year-old but has understandably struggled since the death of her father and coach Konstantin later in 2019.
She began this season with her first title for nearly 3 years in the WTA 250 event at Melbourne Park, and scored a notable win on Wednesday, knocking out Bencic, the 22nd seed.
Both Anisimova and Osaka are unbeaten so far in 2022, and have not met before.
“I know she has a really great return, and she has a great backhand, and I’m expecting it to be a little bit different from the match today,” Osaka said of Anisimova. “I think we’re both gonna take our chances. So it’s gonna be really exciting.
“For me it’s very interesting to play against the younger players, because I remember being a younger player myself and feeling like I have nothing to lose,” the 24-year added.
Anisimova said of meeting Osaka: “I’ve been wanting to play her for a while. I’ll enjoy it, I’ll enjoy the atmosphere. She’s an amazing player, so I’ll look forward to that.”
If Osaka can win that contest, she faces the prospect of a mouth-watering 4th-round battle with World No 1 and Wimbledon champion Barty, who has dropped just 3 games so far, and looks to be in ominous form.
The pair could meet early due to Osaka’s seeding, which is her lowest at a Grand Slam since the 2018 US Open, after a truncated 2021 when she took time out to deal with mental health issues.
The 4-time Grand Slam champion, who has won 2 of the last 3 Australian Opens, wasted little energy on Brengle, and looked confident and relaxed, both on and off the court.
It was a good day all round for the seeded favourites, with in-form duo Paula Badosa and Barbora Krejcikova easing through to round 3.
4th seed Krejcikova defeated another highly rated 20-year-old Chinese, Wang Xiyu, 6-2 6-3, while 8th seed Badosa powered to a 6-0 6-3 victory over Martina Trevisan from Italy.
The Czech next takes on Jelena Ostapenko after the Latvian 26th seed outlasted American Alison Riske, 6-4 2-6 6-4, while Badosa plays Ukrainian Marta Kostyuk, a 7-6(5) 6-3 upset winner over Sara Sorribes Tormo from Spain, seeded 32.
Two-time former champion Victoria Azarenka, seeded 24 from Belarus, has begun strongly in Melbourne and saw off Switzerland’s Jil Teichmann, 6-1 6-2, to set up an intriguing clash with 15th seed Elina Svitolina from Ukraine.
In the last women’s match of the day, Maria Sakkari defeated Zheng Qinwen, 6-1 6-4, to advance to a 3rd round encounter with Veronika Kudermetova, the No 28 seed from Russia, who beat Elena-Gabriela Ruse from Romania, 6-2 7-5, after coming back from 5-2 down in the second set.
Sakkari and Kudermetova have split their two previous matches at one win apiece.
The 19-year old Zheng from China, who came through qualifying, is making quite a name for herself, already having risen to No 108 in the world.
Sakkari was supported by a vocal crowd with many Greeks cheering the 5th seed on, prompting the World No 8 to say it was like playing in front of her home crowd and that she feels right at home in Melbourne.
This is the 4th time in her career that Sakkari has reached the 3rd round of the Australian Open and she delivered a solid performance to quell the challenge of the fast-rising teenage debutante, who had won 76 out of her 93 matches since August 2020.
On this occasion, however, the Chinese was repeatedly outmanoeuvred by Sakkari, who won 71% of her first serve points and all 10 of her net approaches.
After Zheng had battled through 5 deuces to hold in the opening game, Sakkari, a Roland Garros and US Open semi-finalist, seized control to rattle off the next 9 in a row.
Zheng’s formidable serve garnered her 8 aces in total, and a foothold in the second set, but Sakkari’s stranglehold on momentum continued until she reached the brink of victory at 6-1, 5-2.
As Sakkari served for the win, she netted a backhand to squander her 3rd match point, and a rejuvenated Zheng held a point to level at 5-5, but the teenager netted her forehand and, 2 points later, the relieved Greek converted her 4th match point after an hour and a half on court when Zheng sent a backhand wide.
“It felt much better than last match,” said the 26-year old from Athens. “I feel, like, as long as I give myself a lot of chances in this tournament, I can start playing better and better every match.”