Osaka, Barty, Nadal advance but Djokovic looms over Australian Open

Published January 18, 2022
MARCOS Giron (above) of the US in action during the Australian Open first-round match against Spain’s Rafael Nadal at the Melbourne Park on Monday.
—Reuters
MARCOS Giron (above) of the US in action during the Australian Open first-round match against Spain’s Rafael Nadal at the Melbourne Park on Monday. —Reuters

MELBOURNE: The first test of Naomi Osaka’s new approach to tennis might have been when she completely whiffed an overhead to give her opponent a break point on the first day of the no-Novak Djokovic Australian Open.

Osaka didn’t throw her racket. She didn’t roll her eyes. She smiled.

“There are situations where I previously would get upset. But at this point in my life, like, I’m here because I want to be here and because I find that its fun for me,” Osaka said. “Might as well enjoy it while I still can.”

In Osaka’s mind, the drama involving nine-time champion Djokovics deportation on the eve of the Australian Open was something for the players in the men’s draw to worry about. Her title defence began smoothly enough: She won the first five games on the way to a 6-3, 6-3 victory over Camila Osorio.

With so much attention on the 11-day saga of Djokovic’s attempt to participate in the year’s first Grand Slam tournament, the returns of Osaka and Rafael Nadal have been overshadowed.

Osaka wasn’t bothered by that. Nadal didn’t seem to be put off by it, either, renewing his bid for a record 21st Grand Slam singles title with a 6-1, 6-4, 6-2 win over Marcos Giron.

Nadal is tied with Djokovic and Roger Federer with 20 major singles titles each, the most in the history of men’s tennis. With Djokovic unable to defend his crown in Melbourne because he didn’t meet Australias strict Covid-19 vaccination criteria, the door is slightly more ajar to Nadal.

Osaka’s main concern, meanwhile, is winning a third Australian title in four years.

“To be completely honest, it didn’t really affect me,” Osaka said of the Djokovic drama. “My goal, like even before this whole situation, is to just focus on myself more, what I need to do to become better.

“Me, I’m a tennis player. Ill focus on my matches. You as, I guess, an audience, focus on whatever is in the news, no?”

A potential fourth-round meeting with top-ranked Ash Barty could be waiting. Barty, aiming to be the first Australian woman to win the title in Melbourne since 1978, beat Lesia Tsurenko 6-0, 6-1.

Osaka, after winning the title last year, pulled out of the French Open before the second round, then sat out Wimbledon. She played at the Tokyo Olympics, where she lit the cauldron, but ended her 2021 season early after a third-round loss and a teary news conference at the US Open.

Two of her goals for 2022 are to stay completely composed on the court and off, and to enjoy the game.

And, yes, finally, the focus was on tennis in Australia. It got started in a big way, with a combined 64 singles matches on opening day.

French Open champion Barbora Krejcikova, fifth-seeded Maria Sakkari, 15th seed Elina Svitolina and two-time Australian Open champion Victoria Azarenka all advanced.

Two young American contenders went out in the first round, with 2020 Australian Open champion Sofia Kenin losing 7-6 (7-2), 7-5 to Madison Keys and 18th seed Coco Gauff saving five match points before losing 6-4, 6-2 to Wang Qiang.

Olympic champion Belinda Bencic advanced to a second-round match against Amanda Anisimova.

Men’s Olympic champion Alexander Zverev wrapped up the programme on Rod Laver Arena with a 7-6 (7-3), 6-1, 7-6 (7-1) win over Daniel Altmaier and will next play John Millman, who ended 40-year-old Feliciano Lopez’s 79th consecutive Grand Slam event in the first round.

The 14th-sseded Denis Shapovalov followed up his win with Canada in the ATP Cup with a 7-6 (7-3), 6-4, 3-6, 7-6 (3) win over Laslo Djere.

Also advancing were seventh seed Matteo Berrettini, 10th seed Hubert Hurkacz, Cristian Garin, Gael Monfils and Reilly Opelka, while 12th seed Cameron Norrie lost in straight sets to Sebastian Korda.

Nadal won the Australian Open in 2009 and is the only past champion in the men’s bracket after Djokovics late withdrawal Sunday. On Monday, the top-ranked Serb­i­an landed in Dubai, then caught a flight to Belgrade.

Monday was Nadal’s first appearance at a major since he lost to Djokovic in the semi-finals of the French Open. He missed Wimbledon because of fatigue, skipped the US Open with a painful left foot and, after recovering from Covid-19, started 2022 with a title in a tuneup tournament in Melbourne.

“Honestly, its been very tough moments and there are still doubts,” Nadal said. “But here I am and I can’t be happier to be back in this amazing stadium. It’s fantastic.”

The 35-year-old Spaniard said Djokovic’s absence would have an impact on the tournament.

“In a personal level, yes, I would like to see him playing here,” Nadal said. “If it is fair or not that he’s playing here is another discussion that I don’t want to talk anymore.”

Djokovic had been scheduled to play the last match on Rod Laver against Miomir Kecmanovic. Instead, Salvatore Caruso, who lost in qualifying but became the so-called lucky loser to fill the late vacancy in the draw, took the court and lost to Kecmanovic 6-4, 6-2, 6-1.

Published in Dawn, January 18th, 2022

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