As the dust settles around the Novak Djovovic visa affair, the focus is firmly on the tennis at the Australian Open as defending champion Naomi Osaka, Maria Sakkari, Elina Svitolina and Belinda Bencic all came through their opening round matches safely enough, but Coco Gauff faltered, the 17-year old losing 6-3 6-4 to 30-year old Qiang Wang from China.
I thought I played pretty well, given the circumstances. I didn’t really have that much information on my opponent, but I thought she played amazing. She was fighting for every point. It definitely always feels special to come back here, and I played the warm-up tournament [in Melbourne] before the Grand Slam a week ago. I have a lot of really good memories here, so it always feels nice to start the year at this tournament. Naomi Osaka
Out too is Ons Jabeur, the 9th seed from Tunisia, who withdrew ahead of her first match and is replaced by lucky loser Irina Bara.
“Sadly I have to withdraw from my first round of the Australian Open today,” Jabeur said in a statement. “I have injured my back in Sydney last week. I tried everything to be ready and thought I could have recovered in time to play here.
“Unfortunately the pain is still very present and playing in such conditions could jeopardise my whole season. I will now rest and treat myself to come back as soon as possible.”
5th seed Maria Sakkari and Olympic champion Belinda Bencic were among the first big names to win on Monday, the Greek made to sweat against World No 287 Tatjana Maria from Germany before prevailing 6-4 7-6(2).
Maria only gained entry to the season-opening Grand Slam on a special ranking after taking maternity leave following the birth of her second child, and Sakkari, a semi-finalist at both the French Open and US Open last year, was relieved to get past her.
“We all know first rounds are not that easy,” Sakkari said. “Credit to Tatjana, she really played a great match.
“She has a very weird game in a good way. I found it really tough to find my rhythm against her.”
Sakkari, who crashed out in the first round in Melbourne last year before ending the season inside the top 10 for the first time, admitted to being anxious, playing the first match of the 2022 Open on Rod Laver Arena.
“I was a little bit stressed because I was opening up this tournament on this wonderful court. It’s a privilege,” the Greek added. “I’m very glad that I was able to find a way to win and to keep myself in the tournament.”
Seeded in the Top 10 at a Grand Slam for the first time in her career, Sakkari took an hour and 46 minutes to fend off the former Top 50 player.
“I didn’t feel great out there, but I found a solution, found a way to win,” Sakkari said afterwards. “She has a tricky game that, sometimes, it makes you feel uncomfortable inside the court.
“Yeah, it was a decent match. I kind of, like, survived.”
Maria matched Sakkari in aces with 4, but the Greek was ultimately the more aggressive player, with 13 more winners than the German to help her close out 2 close sets.
A double-fault by Maria on break point at 4-4 in the first set gave Sakkari the first crucial break, and she served out the opener from there.
In the second, Maria held 3 break points but could not convert any of them, and Sakkari dominated once they moved into the tiebreak, ending the match with a forehand winner.
Sakkari will meet surging Chinese qualifier Zheng Qinwen in round 2 after the 19-year-old, who made her first WTA semi-final two weeks ago at Melbourne Summer Set 1, outlasted Melbourne Summer Set 2 runner-up Aliaksandra Sasnovich of Belarus, 6-3 1-6 7-6(5) in the first third-set match tiebreak of the tournament.
Playing only her second event since contracting COVID-19 last month, Bencic showed no lingering effects in powering to a 6-4 6-3 victory over France’s Kristina Mladenovic.
Ahead of the battle between former Top 10 players, Mladenovic held a slim 4-3 head-to-head lead, but Bencic was able to tie up the rivalry after converting 4 of her 6 break points in the hour and a half long match.
“I think we know each other well, [me and] Kristina, so we are reading each other’s game very well,” said Bencic. “It was kind of tricky, but I’m happy I kind of stayed solid.
“I don’t think I played my best tennis. I’m not quite there yet, but I’m very happy with how I managed to kind of stay in the match in the important moments.”
The 24-year-old, who had ‘severe’ symptoms, was among a number of players who returned positive tests after playing in an exhibition event in Abu Dhabi.
“I definitely think with COVID, which I had over Christmas, it didn’t help much, so I’m still looking for this kind of confidence … on the court,” the World No 22 said.
The Swiss added that she had struggled after her Sydney Tennis Classic quarter-final loss to eventual winner Paula Badosa last week.
“My pulse was getting very up in the practices and, even after Sydney, after the Badosa match, I was very, very tired … I think it’s getting better day by day,” she said.
“Definitely for my tennis, it’s more the thing that I didn’t practice for 14 days in the middle of the preseason … my fitness definitely was very off, and I had to take it very slow.
“Sydney helped me a lot. I’m happy I played three matches there, I played better than I expected … I was a little bit concerned if I could play Sydney.
“I’m not too worried about this, but it’s just the start of the season and a little bit of a deficit in the practice.”
Bencic, seeded 22 here, will next face Amanda Anisimova after the American, who won her second career WTA singles title two weeks ago at Melbourne Summer Set 2, battled past Dutch qualifier Arianne Hartono 2-6 6-4 6-3.
Osaka has won the title at Melbourne Park twice but is only seeded 13 as a result of her convoluted last season during which she dealt with mental health issues and missed several months, including Wimbledon.
The Japanese returns to match play in Australia and got her AO title defence off to a good start in the overcast conditions, as the reigning champion moved past rising Colombian Camila Osorio, 6-3 6-3, in her first round on Rod Laver Arena.
The former World No 1, who won here last year and in 2019, took 68 minutes to quash the challenge from 20-year-old Osorio, who is currently sitting at a career-high ranking of 50.
“I thought it was really amazing to play against [Osorio],” Osaka said, in her post-match press conference. “She was loud, she was fighting. I think that’s something special. I really commended her for that.
“I thought she had a great return. She was really bold. She kind of stepped in really close to the line.
“I think I was pretty solid. I think I was up 5-0 and had a little dip, but I was fortunate enough to close it out.
“I think that’s something that I hope I’m not in that position in my next match. If I am, I already did it this time around, so I guess I’ll learn from it.”
Osorio was one of the top ranking movers of 2021 and was making her first main-draw appearance Down Under but, in their first meeting, Osaka powered to a 5-0 lead as the Colombian tried to take on the Japanese second serve more, and was finally rewarded with 3 consecutive games.
At 5-3, Osorio held 2 break points to pull back on serve, but Osaka used her fierce forehand and superb serve to extricate herself from that situation, and wrapped up the set in 30 minutes.
Osaka earned the first break of the second set to lead 2-1, and it was smooth sailing for the 4-time Grand Slam champion from there, as she eased through the remainder of the match without facing any more threat.
She finished with an excellent 83 percent success rate behind her first serve, converted 4 of her 6 break points and fired her way into the second round with 19 winners against Osorio, who hit just 5 of her own as the Japanese player effectively imposed her big-hitting game.
“I thought I played pretty well, given the circumstances,” Osaka said later. “I didn’t really have that much information on my opponent, but I thought she played amazing. She was fighting for every point.
“It definitely always feels special to come back here, and I played the warm-up tournament [in Melbourne] before the Grand Slam a week ago.
“I have a lot of really good memories here, so it always feels nice to start the year at this tournament.”
Osaka improved her impressive record in major first round appearances to 19-2, and she plays American Madison Brengle next, who advanced against Dayana Yastremska after the Ukrainian retired trailing 6-1 0-6 5-0.
The 24-year old said she is approaching this Grand Slam in a new way: “I brought a journal with me, so I’ve been writing how I feel every day.”
She also revealed a superstition familiar to fans who watch Rafael Nadal in action: “I need my water bottles to be completely straight, I’m not sure why that is.”
Osaka also consciously avoids stepping on the court’s white lines as well as the painted Melbourne logo.
Elsewhere, 15th seed Elina Svitolina of Ukraine advanced into the second round by beating Fiona Ferro of France, 6-1 7-6(4), in an hour 32 minutes.
Svitolina, a two-time Australian Open quarter-finalist in 2018 and 2019, collected her second straight-set win over Ferro, converting 4 of her 8 break chances, to set up a meeting with another Frenchwoman, Harmony Tan, who knocked out Yulia Putintseva of Kazakhstan, 6-3 6-3.
Also, last year’s WTA 1000 champion in Canada, No 30 seed Camila Giorgi of Italy, dismissed Anastasia Potapova of Russia, 6-4 6-0, winning the last 8 games in a row.
“I think it was a great match because it was [my] first one of the year, so I think it’s very important to get the rhythm,” Giorgi told the press, after her win.