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SPORTS

Osaka, Barty Advance Toward Australian Open Showdown

January 19, 2022

MELBOURNE, Australia — For the first set, Naomi Osaka’s rediscovered love of the game meant it was anything but fun for Madison Brengle in the third round of the Australian Open.

The defending champion conceded only four points in the first four games Wednesday and rifled forehand winners seemingly at will as she breezed to 6-0 in a mere 20 minutes.

The second set started with Brengle celebrating a service hold like she’d finished a long-distance race, but gradually the No. 54-ranked American ground down Osaka to a stage in the seventh game where she finally converted a break-point opportunity — after missing her first nine chances.

That triggered a change in the former No. 1-ranked Osaka, who responded by breaking back immediately and winning the last nine points to complete a 6-0, 6-4 victory.

She will next face Amanda Anisimova, a 20-year-old American who beat Olympic gold medalist Belinda Bencic 6-2, 7-5. The winner of that is likely to face top-ranked Ash Barty in the fourth round.

Osaka won the Australian Open last year, her fourth Grand Slam title, but then withdrew from the French Open and skipped Wimbledon as she took a break for her mental health. She then was ousted early at the U.S. Open.

After a long off-season to reset, she’s unbeaten in five matches in Australia this year.

Asked how she rated her form, Osaka said that’s not how she’s approaching things.

“Honestly I’m trying not to do that,” she said in an on-court TV interview. “I’m a bit of a perfectionist. If I compare myself with the past, I’ll never be satisfied.

“The goal for me is just to have fun … (and) I think we’re accomplishing that.”

Since the draw for the first major of the year was made, a big focus has been on a potential encounter between Osaka and Barty, the 2021 Wimbledon and 2019 French Open champion who is aiming to be the first Australian woman since 1978 to win her home championship.

Barty was front and center when the tournament celebrated its inaugural First Nations Day, albeit only for 52 minutes as she beat 142nd-ranked qualifier Lucia Bronzetti 6-1, 6-1.

“It was nice for me to be a part of it in a way that I feel most comfortable,” Barty, who has Indigenous heritage, said of the day dedicated to the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people of Australia. “Out on the tennis court is how I express myself as an athlete, it’s how I’m able to express myself as a person as well.

“On a day we’re bringing cultures together, bringing people together … it was great for me to be able to play a small role doing what I love.”

Rafael Nadal didn’t get it all his own way in the subsequent match on Rod Laver Arena, needing five match points before beating 126th-ranked German qualifier Yannick Hanfmann 6-2, 6-3, 6-4.

The sixth-seeded Nadal, aiming for a men’s record 21st Grand Slam singles title, had two match points on Hanfmann’s serve and two more on his own in the next game before finally clinching a spot in the third round when his rival sent a forehand long.

Nadal converted only four of his 16 break-point chances, including one of eight in the third set, but only faced two break points on his own serve and fended them both off.

For the 35-year-old Nadal, after fatigue and injuries curtailed his 2021 season following the French Open, time on court is more important than anything else.

“I said here before the tournament started, things are not going to be perfect, but every day that I’m going to spend on court, the chances to play better are higher,” he said. “After two matches is the moment to make a step forward. I’m excited about it.”

Nadal shares the men’s record of 20 singles titles with Roger Federer and Novak Djokovic, and he doesn’t have either of them in the draw this time.

Federer is skipping the Australian Open while he continues his recovery from injury. Djokovic, a nine-time champion at Melbourne Park, was deported after an 11-day saga that he ultimately lost because he didn’t meet Australia’s strict COVID-19 vaccination regulations.

Miomir Kecmanovic, who was originally drawn to meet Djokovic on the opening night, advanced to the third round with a 7-6 (7), 7-5, 7-6 (8) win over Tommy Paul of the United States.

Wimbledon finalist Matteo Berrettini and No. 23 Reilly Opelka advanced in straight sets, while No. 19 Pablo Carreno Busta beat Tallon Griekspoor 6-3, 6-7 (6), 7-6 (3), 3-6, 6-4.

In two marathon five-setters, No. 14 Denis Shapovalov held off Kwon Soon-woo 7-6 (6), 6-7 (3), 6-7 (6), 7-5, 6-2 in 4 hours, 25 minutes on Margaret Court Arena, and Sebastian Korda edged Corentin Moutet 3-6, 6-4, 6-7 (2), 7-5, 7-6 (6) in 4:47.

In the women’s draw, French Open champion and fourth-seeded Barbora Krejcikova beat Wang Xiyu 6-2, 6-3 to move into a third-round match against No. 26 Jelena Ostapenko.

Eighth-seeded Paula Badosa advanced in straight sets and two-time Australian Open champion Victoria Azarenka moved into a third-round match against 15th-seeded Elina Svitolina, who was leading 6-3, 5-7, 5-1 when Harmony Tan retired from their second-round match.

Svitolina waited on court at Margaret Court Arena until Tan, who had received treatment on her lower left leg, was removed in a wheelchair.

“It’s always horrible when any athlete gets injured in competition. She played really well and she made it not easy for me,” Svitolina said. “It’s tough to see a player going out like this.”

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All of which seemed to confirm this assessment that she offered during an 18-minute pre-tournament French Open news conference, one year after she declared she would avoid talking to the press and then withdrew before the second round: “For the most part, I think I’m OK.

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