Naomi Osaka’s quest for a Gold medal became marginally easier as both 3rd-seeded Aryna Sabalenka and No 4 seed Iga Swiatek were edged out of contention by Donna Vekic and Paula Badosa respectively, and Petra Kvitova faded in the heat and humidity of Tokyo 2020 against Alison van Uytvanck on Day 3 of the Olympic Tennis Event.
It is really good, really satisfying [to beat Sabalenka]. Winning 7-6 in the third set is always great. She’s playing really good tennis this year so I’m sure this win will give me a lot of confidence. I don’t want to think about my chances of a medal. I’ve played two tough, long matches. I’ve come here, I would say, not 100 per cent prepared. I’m still struggling a little bit with my knee. I’m just taking it one day at a time. I will try to recover and get ready for tomorrow. Donna Vekic
The poster child of Tokyo 2020, Osaka cruised past Switzerland’s Viktorija Golubic, 6-3 6-3, in just 65 minutes to reach third round in Tokyo, seemingly untroubled by her newfound status as favourite for the Olympic title after World No 1 Ash Barty’s surprise exit at the hands of Spaniard Sara Sorrbes Tormo on Saturday.
“Honestly, it’s a bit interesting,” she said of playing for the host nation. “The [Japanese] flag is always next to my name, but the scale here is much bigger.
“It’s something I’ve been waiting for since Rio.”
Osaka, the reigning Australian and US Open champion, is making her first competitive appearance on court in almost two months in Tokyo, but there have been no signs of rustiness on her return in straight-sets wins over China’s Zheng Saisai and world No. 50 Golubic.
“I put this pressure on myself to do well because I know that I don’t play that many tournaments,” said Osaka. “For me, I feel, like, I’ve watched these players playing the tournaments while I was on my break, so I just really, really want to do well.”
Osaka, who is bidding to become the first Japanese woman to win an Olympic medal at the Games here in Tokyo, is choosing to live in the moment rather than fixate on the potential prize in store.
“I feel like, as long as I work hard, relatively keep my head down, then good things will happen,” she added. “For me, it’s a dream to be here, to play the Olympics.
“This is my first time. I’m just trying to cherish this experience.”
Osaka benefitted from overcast, cooler conditions on Centre Court in contrast to the oppressive conditions on the opening two days of the tournament, and easily overpowered her Swiss opponent.
She played a terrific first set, winning 24 of her 26 service points and converting her first set point with her 8th backhand winner of the frame, winning 37 of 45 service points (82 percent) and facing only 1 break point.
She broke in the 8th game of the first set and, bar several elegant winners from Golubic, including a deft lunging drop-shot and a sweet lob that both drew applause from Osaka, the World No 2 always held control.
Golubic finally snapped a 7-game losing streak for 1-4 in the second, but the damage was done and Osaka cooly closed out the win to book her place in the third round against either Czech Marketa Vondrousova, who dispatched Romanian Mihaela Buzarnescu, 6-1 6-2.
“I think she is the favourite, so I’m not under any pressure,” said Vondrousova on facing the top remaining seed in the women’s singles draw. “It’s a new match, a new experience – I’ve never played her before.
“She’s a great player, and she’s the face of tennis now, so we’ll see. But as I said, I’m not under pressure.”
For Golubic, who remains in contention for a medal in the doubles alongside Belinda Bencic, defeat meant time to reflect on her debut Olympics.
“It was special, of course,” admitted the Swiss. “It’s the Olympics, so I think it was even a little more emotional.
“I’m kind of really disappointed now because I’m not that satisfied with my performance. I think I could have done a little more.
“Obviously it was super nice to play, even without the crowd, though I think we both missed them, but still, it was a very, very nice experience.”
Belarus’ strong hope of a medal, Aryna Sabalenka, fell at the last hurdle of a lengthy battle with Donna Vekic from Croatia, 6-4 3-6 7-6(3), who advances to round 3 to take on Elena Rybakina, the 15th seed from Kazakstan, who eased past Sweden’s Rebecca Peterson, 6-2 6-3.
“It is really good, really satisfying [to beat Sabalenka],” said Vekic, the World No 50. “Winning 7-6 in the third set is always great.
“She’s playing really good tennis this year so I’m sure this win will give me a lot of confidence.
“I don’t want to think about my chances of a medal. I’ve played two tough, long matches.
“I’ve come here, I would say, not 100 per cent prepared. I’m still struggling a little bit with my knee. I’m just taking it one day at a time. I will try to recover and get ready for tomorrow.”
For Rybakina, this was the 22-year-old Kazakh’s 21st match-win of the year, with the highlight of the season being a straights-sets win over Serena Williams to advance to the quarter-finals of the French Open.
In the 7 early matches at Ariake Tennis Park, the higher-ranked players all prevailed in straight sets, including 7th-seeded Garbiñe Muguruza, who had no issues in a 6-3 6-0 victory against China’s Wang Qiang, wrapping things up in only 61 minutes.
Muguruza broke Wang, who had won their previous 2 head-to-head matches, 5 times to notch up her 29th match-win of the season, but her anticipated 3rd-round match against No 10 Petra Kvitova is no longer on the cards as the Czech fell to Belgium’s Alison Van Uytvanck, 5-7 6-3 6-0.
Van Uytvanck, who underwent knee surgery in February, later described the two-time former Wimbledon champion as ‘a legend in our sport’.
“She’s an absolute great player and it’s an honour to share the court with her – that’s what I told her at the net,” Van Uytvanck said. “I think what she has done for women’s tennis is incredible.
“I hope that I can maybe some day achieve the same things she has achieved. I’m proud of myself with what I did on court today and the level I reached.
“After the surgery it has been tough to come back to competition. I lost a couple of matches in a row, then I had the grass season which gave me good confidence. Then to come here and beat Petra is one of the biggest wins I ever had.”
“I think it would be much harder [to take] if I didn’t have a medal in Rio,” Kvitova remarked afterwards on her loss.
While Kvitova may not reach the podium herself at Tokyo 2020, compatriot Barbora Krejcikova believes her inspiration has played its part in forging the emerging generation of world-class talent now reaching the top of the sport.
“It’s just very nice to get inspired by them,” explained Krejcikova, top-seeded with Katerina Siniakova in the women’s doubles draw that also features Pliskova & Vondrousova in the second round.
“You see Petra there, you see how she is preparing, and you gain a lot of experience. We push each other to play better and better, that’s how I feel.
“When we practice and do stuff together, we are constantly pushing each other to improve. There is a healthy rivalry between us, and I think that’s why all the Czech players are going up, because every single week we are inspired by one or another.”
Krejcikova, the 8th-seed from the Czech Republic, was dominant in handling 18-year-old Canadian Leylah Fernandez, 6-2 6-4, to notch up her 22nd win of her past 23 matches.
“I really like the Village,” said Krejcikova, who is relishing her time at Tokyo 2020. “I like to spend time with other athletes from Czech Republic.
“We have a little room where we watch TVs and support our athletes. That is really nice.
“And I like having the chance to meet and talk to them – I love to hear their stories and get inspired because they are all here as the best in their sports. This is the best part of the Olympics so far.
“We have a big basketball team, I’ve spoken a lot with them. We have some swimmers, judokas, rowers, and now the track and field team – I met some of them yesterday while we were watching Petra [Kvtiova] and Tomas [Machac].
“It’s perfect – this is something I’m really enjoying. But I don’t enjoy that it’s pretty packed when we go eat!”
The French Open champion, hitting characteristically smooth groundstrokes, needed 75 minutes to complete the match against Fernandez and next plays the No 9 seed from Switzerland Belinda Bencic, who ended local hopes by defeating Misaki Doi, 6-2 6-4.
“It’s going great,” Bencic said, having scored two singles and a doubles win so far in Tokyo. “I think it’s just showing how excited I am to be here.
“It’s really something new and I was really excited before, but now even more that I’m here it definitely matched my expectations even more.
“I love to be in the [Olympic] Village. It’s just something new, something exciting. I feel like I’m on a high a little bit.”
No 13 seed Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova, representing the Russian Olympic Committee, is also on a high, defeating Germany’s Anna-Lena Friedsam, 6-1 6-1, and has lost just 3 games in her first two matches.
She ended the match in 56 minutes, winning a remarkable 53 of 73 points and will now meet Spain’s Sara Sorribes Tormo, who sailed past France’s Fiona Ferro, 6-1 6-2.
Greece’s Maria Sakkari, the No 14 seed, had no trouble handling Nina Stojanovic from Serbia, 6-1 6-2.
The 26-year-old dominated in her service games, stroking 5 aces and breaking Stojanovic 4 times to meet 4th-seeded Elina Svitolina in a highly anticipated third-round match after the Ukrainian prevailed over Australia’s Ajla Tomljanovic, 4-6 6-3 6-4.
“The ice bath is waiting for me, definitely,” joked Svitolina. “To be fair, I started not bad, 2-0 up, but then everything went downhill for me.
“I was playing really bad, I was a bit slow and I didn’t feel my game at all.
“Maybe it’s because of yesterday’s match [against Laura Siegemund] but in the end I was just trying to find my rhythm, move my feet a bit quicker and adjust. I just had to fight and try to find my game.”
In the only unseeded early match, Italy’s Camila Giorgi bested ROC’s Elena Vesnina, 6-3 6-1, following up on her first-round upset of No11 seed Jennifer Brady from the USA.
Giorgi had lost 2 of 3 matches to Vesnina, but they hadn’t played in 4 years.
The Italian hit 20 winners and broke Vesnina 5 times to set up a meeting with No.5 seed Karolina Pliskova in the third round after the Czech survived a scare in her encounter with Spain’s Carla Suarez-Navarro but eventually outlasted her, 6-3 6-7(0) 6-1.
Argentina’s Nadia Podoroska continued her run with a 6-1 6-3 win over ROC’s Ekaterina Alexandrova, setting up a meeting with Spain’s Paula Badosa, who took out Poland’s big hope, Iga Swiatek, 6-3 7-6(4).