Australian Open: Osaka Takes Charge On Day One

Naomi Osaka (photo: Rob Prezioso/Tennis Australia)

MELBOURNE/WASHINGTON, February 8, 2021 (by Michael Dickens)

There was no shortage of women’s storylines on opening day of the 2021 Australian Open at Melbourne Park Monday. You want star power? How about Naomi Osaka, Serena Williams and Simona Halep headlining on Rod Laver Arena? Next door, at Margaret Court Arena, Venus Williams, Angelique Kerber and Petra Kvitova – who have combined for 12 Grand Slam titles – were the attractive names that helped sell tickets. Elsewhere on the grounds, among the well-known players in action on Day One were Bianca Andreescu, Iga Swiatek, and Aryna Sabalenka. Indeed, there were plenty of bold-faced names playing their first-round matches.

As Day One of the year’s first major – the “Happy Slam” – began three weeks later than usual and under cloudy skies and 16º Celsius temperatures, the reigning US Open champion Naomi Osaka, seeded third in Melbourne, opened play on Rod Laver Arena and cruised to an easy first-round victory. In the span of 68 minutes, the Japanese superstar advanced to the second round with a 6-1, 6-2 win over 39th-ranked Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova of Russia, who had reached the quarterfinals of the Australian Open in three of the last four years. As for Osaka, she’s not lost in the past year.

Osaka hit 18 winners to 14 unforced errors and won 71 percent of her service points. She was broken just once and was never in any real danger. That may come in later rounds when the level of her draw gets tougher. In the second round, she’ll face No. 44 Caroline Garcia of France, who advanced with a 7-6 (6), 6-3 win over No. 49 Polona Hercog of Slovenia. Her future opponents could include: No. 27 seed Ons Jabeur, No. 14 seed Garbiñe Muguruza, No. 8 seed Andreescu and No. 2 seed Halep. On the other side of the draw is World No. 1 Ashleigh Barty, whom Osaka could only meet in the final in two weeks.

Before Monday’s match, over the weekend Osaka said: “I just wanna play every match as hard as I can and if it comes to the point where I’m able to be No. 1 again, I’ll embrace it, but I’m not really chasing it like that anymore.”

After her win, Osaka admitted, “I was nervous coming into this match; I just wanted to play well. However, she said having a tough first-round opponent helped her to calm her nerves “because I let like I couldn’t afford to be that nervous. It was a tough match.”

Osaka thanked the socially-distanced but enthusiastic crowd during her on-court interview and later, during her post-match interview said: “Throughout the match, I was really happy to have fans there. I felt like there was more interaction than in New York because in New York it was just a generic crowd noise every point. Here, it felt like they sort of weighed whether I made a mistake and stuff like that.

“I thought it was more fun.”

Fun but, perhaps, tiring, too? “Physically I feel like everyone, their bodies are shocked, coming in and playing so suddenly after such a long break,” Osaka said. “I think we’re all getting used to it and everyone is just happy to be here.”

With one round in the books and six more to garner her second Australian Open title to go with the one she won in 2019, Osaka is in the right headspace as the first Grand Slam unfolds.

Serena begins journey for 24th major title

For the past four years, Serena Williams has tried to tie Margaret Court’s record for Grand Slam titles. In her latest bid to reach a record-tying 24 majors, Williams walked out on Rod Laver Arena for her 100th career Australian Open match wearing a flashy, multi-colored one-legged catsuit – an homage to the late “Flo-Jo,” Olympian Florence Griffith Joyner. Her game was full of panache, too.

Williams dropped the opening game to Germany’s 51st-ranked Laura Siegemund, then won 10 games in a row and beat the German, 6-1, 6-1. Serena hit 16 winners and lost just nine points on her serve to win for the 88th time in Melbourne.

“I was happy just to get through it,” Williams said during her post-match press conference, describing what she was happy with and how she felt after moving into the second round. “Wasn’t sure how my serve would be after a little bit of that shoulder, but it’s feeling good, I’m feeling good. So, it felt really good.”

Joining Serena in the winner’s circle was her older sister, 80th-ranked Venus Williams, who is the oldest player in the draw at age 40. She won a Grand Slam match for the first time since 2019 with her 7-5, 6-2 victory over No. 87 Kirsten Flipkens of Belgium on Margaret Court Arena. Venus Williams, who is playing in her 21st Australian Open, is coming off an 0-3 record at majors last year. Her win on Monday came in her 88th Grand Slam tournament, which is a women’s record and it improved her Australian Open main draw win-loss record to 54-20.

Andreescu wins in her first match since 2019

Canada’s Bianca Andreescu, playing in her first match in 15 months, picked up where she left off. The 20-year-old eighth seed defeated Romanian lucky loser Mihaela Buzarnescu, ranked 137th, 6-2, 4-6, 6-3 to earn her first win at a Grand Slam since she won the 2019 US Open.

Andreescu hit 27 winners to overcome her 34 unforced errors. She won 74 percent of her service points and converted three of nine break-point opportunities against Buzarnescu.

“After the match, I sat down with my team a little bit, and I’m like, ‘Oh, guys, he we go again, those three-setters,’ and they just started laughing because they obviously knew what they were getting themselves into,” said Andreescu, who will face No. 68 Hsieh Su-Wei of Taiwan, who beat 137th-ranked Bulgarian qualifier Tsvetana Pironkova, 7-5, 6-2.

“But those matches are super good for me in my opinion because it really shows that I can scramble when I really need to, or if there’s some pressure I can dig my way through it somehow. When my back is against the wall, not only today, but I’ve noticed throughout my last couple tournaments in 201, “I’ve been able to pull through with those.”

Halep, Kvitova both win in straight sets

Both World No. 2 Simona Halep and No. 9 seed Petra Kvitova won their opening matches in straight sets. Halep, who was a 2018 finalist in Melbourne, won 15 of the first 19 points and went on to beat 140th-ranked Australian wild card Lizette Cabrera, 6-2, 6-1, in 59 minutes to reach the second round, where she will face another Aussie, No. 72 Ajla Tomljanovic.

“Very nice atmosphere. Good vibe,” said Halep in describing the opening night crowd in Rod Laver Arena, where her match preceded Novak Djokovic’s. “I was really happy to be back on court with some people in the crowd and really happy that I could win the match.”

Meanwhile, Kvitova jumped out to a quick 5-1 lead and went on to beat No. 110 Greet Minnen of Belgium, 6-3, 6-4, in one hour and 21 minutes.

“The first rounds are always very difficult, and it wasn’t easy today either,” said Kvitova who will meet No. 72 Sorana Cirstea of Romania in the second round. “I’m really glad that after kind of score looking it was easy the first set but suddenly something happened, and I’m really glad that I was able to turn it around for my side. That’s been really important for me.”

Bad day for German women

Monday was not a good day at Melbourne Park for the German women. Following Laura Siegemund’s 6-1, 6-1 drubbing against 10th seed Serena Williams, No. 23 seed Angelique Kerber was shocked by unseeded No. 63 Bernarda Pera of the United States, 6-0, 6-4, in a battle of left-handed sluggers that was over in just 67 minutes – including an 18-minute first set. Last fall, Kerber also lost in the first round of Roland Garros.

“It was not my day, actually,” said Kerber, who won the 2016 Australian Open for the first of her three major titles. “I was starting really late to ply my tennis. [Bernarda] played really well, especially in the first set. I think I never saw her playing like that. …I was not feeling from the start good, so I think that was then the reason why I lost the match because it was a late start.”

Later, 102nd-ranked Andrea Petkovic lost to No. 27 seed Ons Jabeur of Tunisia, 6-3, 3-6, 6-4. To Petkovic’s credit, her match lasted the longest of the three Germans, clocking at one hour and 58 minutes.

The only German left in the women’s singles draw is Mona Barthel, who used a special ranking (No. 101) to gain direct entry. She plays her first-round match against 132nd-ranked Italian qualifier Elisabetta Cocciaretto on Tuesday

News & noteworthy

• Among the seeds advancing to Wednesday’s second round were: No. 7 Aryna Sabalenka of Belarus, who hit 21 winners in her 6-0, 6-4 win over No. 98 Viktoria Kuzmova of Slovakia. Last week, Sabalenka had her three tournament and 15-match winning streaks broken in the Gippsland Trophy tune-up event.

Also, No. 15 seed Iga Swiatek of Poland, who the French Open in her last Grand Slam event last year, defeated No. 74  Arantxa Rus of the Netherlands, 6-1, 6-3; No. 17 seed Elena Rybakina of Kazakhstan defeated Russia’s 156th-ranked Vera Zvonareva, 4-6, 6-4, 6-4; and No. 19 Marketa Vondrousova of the Czech Republic advanced over No. 55 Rebecca Peterson of Sweden, 2-6, 7-5, 7-5.

Among the seeded upsets were No. 24 Alison Riske of the United States, who lost 6-2, 6-1 to No. 101 Anastasia Potapova of Russia; and No. 30 Wang Qiang of China was upset by 131st-ranked Italian qualifier Sara Errani, 2-6, 6-4, 6-4.

Naomi Osaka was the first women’s winner of this year’s Australian Open, finishing her win over Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova in 65 minutes.

• Defending Australian Open champion Sofia Kenin, seeded fourth this year, will open her title defense first on Rod Laver Arena against 130th-ranked Australian wild card Maddison Inglis Tuesday morning at 11 a.m. AEDT. World No. 1 Ashleigh Barty headlines the night session on RLA against No. 77 Danka Kovinic of Montenegro.

By the numbers

What they’re saying

Iga Swiatek, asked during her post-match press conference describe her mindset as she faced Arantxa Rus on 1573 Arena Monday afternoon:

“Basically, I tried to only think about playing and not other stuff. I was singing in my head (R&B classic “It Takes Two” by Marvin Gaye) to keep my mind busy, focusing on little things. I say that basically on every interview. Sometimes it’s easier to do that, sometimes not. I felt that it was easier today than on tournament before. Yeah, I just played good tennis. Maybe I made some decisions that weren’t perfect, like some of the dropshots, but it’s also first match of the tournament. I hope I’m going to be playing better and better next round.”

Monday’s results

Tuesday’s order of play