Those who are in Tokyo preparing for the Olympic Tennis Event are happy to be there despite the risks and concerns over the pandemic that has reached emergency proportions in the Japanese capital.
It's my first Olympic Games and I'm really looking forward to it. This is something new for me. I would say this is the new challenge, and I'm really looking forward to it. I'm really happy to represent my country, my people and I want to do everything I can to make sure that Belarus is proud of me. I want to represent my country as strong people who can fight through everything. Aryna Sabalenka
World No 1 Ash Barty is based outside the athletes village in a move intended to bolster her bid for gold.
Barty, fresh from beating Karolina Pliskova in the Wimbledon final, touched down in Japan on Monday for her first Olympics and is among Australia’s leading medal contenders in Tokyo, with the absence of Simona Halep, Serena Williams, Bianca Andreescu, Sofia Kenin, Victoria Azarenka, Angelique Kerber and Coco Gauff for a range of reasons.
Numerous Olympians from around the world have chosen a different base for this and previous Games, but the spectre of COVID-19 and associated biosecurity protocols have added a degree of complexity to such arrangements for Tokyo.
“Ash is staying elsewhere,” Australia’s Chef de Mission Ian Chesterman told reporters. “We have a number of athletes staying outside the village. We allow that, it’s just what works best for them.
“Something I’ve always been very big on is, driving performance takes a whole lot of flexible decisions, flexible options.
“In terms of her performance plan, it’s best served by her being able to control her environment and we respect that.”
Barty will not be bypassing the village entirely as the 25-year-old, who is seeking to become Australia’s third Indigenous Olympic gold medallist if successful in Tokyo, dropped by the team’s base for a coffee on Tuesday morning.
“She is staying in an Australian environment where she can still easily access the village,” Chesterman added.
Australia’s Olympic tennis team were rocked by last week’s withdrawal of Alex de Minaur, who tested negative for COVID-19 at Wimbledon, then contracted the virus after leaving London.
“They know they haven’t had contact with Alex during any critical period of time and their focus is now on making the most of their opportunity here,” Chesterman said. “They’re not worried.”
Meanwhile, Garbiñe Muguruza is one of Spain’s best hopes for a tennis medal in Tokyo, as she will compete in both singles and doubles alongside Carla Suarez Navarro, and the current World No 9 admits she is looking forward to a different challenge.
“Competing in the Games is very different, and it’s hard for me to even understand where I am,” she said in an interview with the El Correo newspaper.
“It’s really different living in the Olympic village with the rest of the Spanish team and it took me a couple of days to get used to it, but it’s great precisely because it’s different.
“It’s every four years – in this case, five – and it’s like a gift to go back to the Games.”
This is her second Olympic experience after losing in the last 16 to eventual winner Monica Puig at Rio in 2016.
“I enjoyed it, but Rio was my first Olympic experience and it was tough, but now I know how things are and I’m motivated and am very excited,” she continued, although she admits she didn’t have the full Olympic experience.
“I didn’t see any other events, as it’s not that easy when you are playing and I did singles and doubles, so I barely had time.”
Muguruza believes that winning an Olympic medal is ‘the greatest possible success – a medal is something unique in sport, I would love to have it’,
“When you go to Wimbledon and it doesn’t go well for you, you leave disappointed and you talk to your coach, but if things go badly in the Games, first you lose an opportunity that only comes every four years.
“Also, you want to win a medal for your country, so you are no longer an individual. If I lose there, I lose with my team,” she explained.
Aryna Sabalenka is another medal hopeful, fresh from her breakthrough Grand Slam performance at Wimbledon.
The World 3 is determined to win a medal for Belarus and says she has no reason to fear any of her rivals in Tokyo.
The 23-year-old has won 10 titles on the WTA Tour but had never got beyond the fourth round at a Grand Slam before this month’s Wimbledon, where she made it to the semi-finals before losing in three sets to Czech Karolina Pliskova.
“It’s my first Olympic Games and I’m really looking forward to it,” she told the ITF. “This is something new for me.
“I would say this is the new challenge, and I’m really looking forward to it.
“I’m really happy to represent my country, my people and I want to do everything I can to make sure that Belarus is proud of me.
“I want to represent my country as strong people who can fight through everything.”
Barty and home hope Naomi Osaka, who is ranked second and won 4 of the last 6 Grand Slams held on hard courts, are expected to be Sabalenka’s main challengers at the Ariake Tennis Park.
“I will do everything I can to make this dream [come] true,” she said, adding that just thinking about the Olympics gave her goosebumps.
“I am looking forward to the fights. This is something really unbelievable. I’m not afraid of anybody.”