TOKYO: Japan’s Naomi Osaka won in straight sets on her highly-anticipated return to the court at the Tokyo Olympics yesterday, while world number one Ashleigh Barty crashed out in the first round. Osaka, the star of the opening ceremony, defeated China’s Zheng Saisai 6-1, 6-4 and said she felt “refreshed” after taking an eight-week break for mental health reasons.
“I felt really nervous being in Japan and playing here for the first time in maybe two years, and for it to be my first Olympics,” said Osaka, chosen as the first tennis player to light the Olympic cauldron on Friday. “It was definitely really nerve-wracking. But I am glad I was able to win, she is a very tough opponent.”
The Australian Open champion had not played since May, when she walked out of Roland Garros saying that media commitments were harming her mental health. “I feel like more than anything I’m just focused on playing tennis. Playing the Olympics has been a dream of mine since I was a kid,” she said, in her first appearance before media. “I feel like the break that I took was very needed, but I feel definitely a little bit refreshed and happy again.”
Osaka showed few signs of rust as she reeled off the opening five games on the Ariake Coliseum center court, which likely would have been packed to capacity if not for a spectator ban because of coronavirus restrictions. The second seed broke the 52nd-ranked Zheng for a 2-1 lead in the second set and closed out an 87-minute victory on her third match point.
The 23-year-old Osaka is attempting to become Japan’s first Olympic tennis champion. She will play Switzerland’s Viktorija Golubic in the last 32. Osaka is now the clear favorite for gold after Barty, the reigning Wimbledon champion, dropped serve twice in each set and made 55 unforced errors in a 6-4, 6-3 loss to Spain’s 48th-ranked Sara Sorribes Tormo.
“I’m disappointed I wasn’t able to get through today, it just wasn’t my day,” said Barty. “I never really felt comfortable out there and wasn’t able to play the match on my terms. I was a bit erratic and made too many errors.” Sorribes Tormo will go on to face France’s Fiona Ferro in the second round.
Meanwhile defending champion Andy Murray withdrew from the men’s singles with a quad muscle strain just hours before he was scheduled to play Felix Auger-Aliassime. Murray, 34, will stay in Japan to play doubles with Joe Salisbury. The pair won their opening match of the competition on Saturday. “I am really disappointed at having to withdraw but the medical staff have advised me against playing in both events, so I have made the difficult decision to withdraw from the singles and focus on playing doubles with Joe,” Murray said in a statement.
Three-time Grand Slam champion Murray is the only player to win two Olympics singles titles (2012 and 2016). He was replaced in the draw by Australia’s Max Purcell, who beat ninth seed Auger Aliassime 6-4, 7-6 (7/2). French Open runner-up Stefanos Tsitsipas battled past German veteran Philipp Kohlschreiber 6-3, 3-6, 6-3, while Alexander Zverev defeated Taiwan’s Lu Yen-hsun 6-1, 6-3 inside an hour. Kei Nishikori, the 2016 bronze medalist, took down Russian fifth seed Andrey Rublev 6-3, 6-4, and is the only one of four Japanese men to make round two.
Karolina Pliskova, the Wimbledon runner-up two weeks ago, demolished France’s Alize Cornet 6-1, 6-3, while Aryna Sabalenka, the third seed from Belarus, swept past Pole Magda Linette 6-2, 6-1. Newly-weds Elina Svitolina and Gael Monfils, who tied the knot just before flying to Tokyo, suffered contrasting fortunes on their Olympic honeymoon. Svitolina overcame Laura Siegemund 6-3, 5-7, 6-4 in a match that lasted more than three hours, but Monfils lost to Ilya Ivashka of Belarus. – AFP