Osaka eases through in the spotlight while Krejcikova stays under the radar

As the sunlight slowly began to fade on Wednesday in Melbourne Park, two of the top women’s players were holding fort on two most prominent courts across the grounds. On Rod Laver Arena, the night session was all but filled to its capped attendance as the crowd watched Naomi Osaka continue her comeback with a 6-0, 6-4 win over the USA’s Madison Brengle.

But next door, only a smattering of fans had hung around for the end of the day session on Margaret Court Arena to watch as Barbora Krejcikova, the fourth seed, picked apart Wang Xiyu of China 6-2, 6-3 to move on to the third round.

Despite the best efforts of Wang, a talented 20-year-old with a wicked lefty serve, many of Krejcikova’s vast talents were on show. Her hooked topspin forehand, one of the standout shots in the women’s game, commanded most exchanges and she continually changed direction of the ball, spreading it to every part of the court. Meanwhile, she demonstrated her comprehensive toolbox of shots with her volleys, sharp angles and backhand slice.

While she may not receive the attention reserved for more prominent players on the women’s tour, Krejcikova is quietly one of the stories of women’s tennisnow. Two years ago, she was ranked outside the top 120 when she won her first grand slam main draw match at the 2020 Australian Open as a qualifier. Until that point, she had spent her career humbly trying to become a top 100 player.

That she became the French Open singles champion within 18 months was a shocking feat in itself, but one of the great revelations of the past eight months has been how she has backed up those two glorious weeks in Paris. Krejcikova compiled a 29-4 record across the spring and summer, winning three titles, and her form has only continued into the new year. Last week, she started her season by reaching the final at the Sydney International in a stacked field.

Despite the fourth seed by her name, there are frequent reminders of her low profile. She is still wearing the same Head outfit she wore as she won the French Open and her inexperience with certain duties that top players must undertake is clear. As Krejcikova walked towards the exit after her match, an official on the side waved frantically at her to remain on the court – she is still not used to giving an on-court interviews after each match.

Barbora Krejcikova is the No 4 seed in Melbourne but has a low profile in the sport
Barbora Krejcikova is the No 4 seed in Melbourne but has a low profile in the sport. Photograph: Morgan Sette/Reuters

Over the past months, Krejcikova’s results have made it clear that she intends to remain a top player and considering her sustained doubles success – she remains one half of the No 1 doubles team alongside Katerina Siniakova – she was arguably the overall player of the season last year.

In Melbourne she is one of the tournament favourites and she continues to deal with her new reality with her typical composure. “There is always pressure, there has always been pressure, there is always going to be pressure,” she said recently. “I think the most important thing is just to really go and enjoy, and that’s what I’m planning to do. That’s something I’m focusing on.”

As Krejcikova moved on without incident, Osaka faced her first obstacle of the tournament. After breezing through the first set against Brengle, the second set became a much tighter affair and Osaka lost serve to trail 3-4 after a cascade of errors. As she returned to her chair, Osaka gestured as if she was going to strike a ball in fury or throw her racket.

But that lapse was only momentary. Osaka refocused immediately and she punctuated each of her following forehand winners with fist pumps and positive gestures. In a sight that has played out many times in big tournaments over the past few years, Osaka reeled off three straight games to win.

“In that moment of course I was really disappointed with myself, but I also think these are the type of matches that I need to play in grand slams to get broken and to figure out a way to fight back in really crucial times,” she said.

As Osaka moved towards the third round, at least one notable person was watching. Andy Murray was impressed enough by Osaka’s first set display to ask his fans on Twitter: “Anyone hit the ball cleaner from the baseline than @naomiosaka?” After one respondent argued that all men’s players do so, he assured them that this was not the case.

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“Definitely means a lot,” said Osaka on Murray’s support. “For me it was a really cool moment. It’s a little bit shocking, because when you’re playing, you never really think about the TV broadcasting it and other people are watching. So, yeah, definitely really surreal. I hit with him once like three years ago, and it was like a memory that’s really dear to me. It was really cool just to have someone like him talking about my game.”

Osaka, the defending champion, will now face 20-year-old Amanda Anisimova, a former teenage prodigy in the midst of a resurgence, in the next round. It is a difficult third round match but one that comes with a particular reward. Should she win, a blockbuster fourth round against Ash Barty, the top seed, could follow.

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