The blazing headline from Tuesday’s round of 16 matches was Marketa Vondrousova’s stunning 6-1, 6-4 victory over No.2 seed Naomi Osaka.
Just when it looked like Osaka had shaken off nearly two months of inactivity – and somehow turned the pressure of seeking a gold medal on home turf into a positive – the 21-year-old Czech player leveled the playing field in a scant 68 minutes.
Osaka, who made a star turn as the ignitor of the Tokyo Olympic cauldron, was trying to become the fourth player to win Olympic singles gold in the country they represented, joining Lindsay Davenport, Andre Agassi and Andy Murray.
Vondrousova, ranked No. 42, won the match of her life.
“I think this is one of the biggest [wins], for sure,” Vondrousova told reporters afterward. “I beat Simona [Halep] twice, but I think Naomi, she is the greatest now, the greatest in the game, and she’s also the face of the Olympics.
The women's quarterfinals in the #TokyoOlympics are set:— US Open Tennis (@usopen) July 27, 2021
Pavlyuchenkova 🇷🇺 vs Bencic 🇨🇭
Rybakina 🇰🇿 vs Muguruza 🇪🇸
Giorgi 🇮🇹 vs Svitolina 🇺🇦
Badosa 🇪🇸 vs Vondrousova 🇨🇿
Who moves one step closer to an Olympic medal?
“It was tough for her, I think, to play like this. But I’m too happy now.”
Now, Wednesday’s Olympic quarterfinals, incredibly, will be without the top three seeds – Ashleigh Barty, Osaka and Aryna Sabalenka.
Take your pick – more familiar athletes like Elina Svitolina, Garbiñe Muguruza, Belinda Bencic and Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova – or players more under the radar like Camila Giorgi, Paula Badosa, Elena Rybakina or Vondrousova.
The unnerving reality? Three of the four winners will go home with an Olympic medal. It’s now anybody’s game.
Matches begin at Ariake Tennis Park 11 a.m. Wednesday (Tuesday, 10 p.m. ET):
No.9 Belinda Bencic vs. No.13 Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova
Amid all the upsets of higher seeds, Pavlyuchenkova has been working her way quietly, forcefully through the draw.
After defeating Sara Sorribes Tormo 6-1, 6-3, Pavlyuchenkova, the 30-year-old Russian, finds herself in an historic place. She’s lost only seven games in wins against Sara Errani, Anna-Lena Friedsam and Sorribes Tormo, who sent Barty out of the singles draw. That’s the fewest games dropped for a player advancing to the Olympic quarterfinals in 33 years of modern play.
She’ll play Bencic, who took out No.8 Barbora Krejcikova 1-6, 6-2, 6-3 in the last round.
“I don’t focus on the names,” Pavlyuchenkova told reporters. “I don’t focus on the rankings. I just take it match by match. It’s going to be another new match. All I focus on is myself. I want to feel good. I want to play good tennis, fight and do the best I can to win.”
The month before turning 30, Pavlyuchenkova did something she’d never done by advancing to the final of a Grand Slam. And while she lost to eventual French Open champion Krejcikova, Pavlyuchenkova left Paris feeling good about her game.
Her ranking has climbed from No.41, before reaching the semifinals in Madrid, to No.32 before Roland Garros, to the present No.18 – only five spots lower than her career best, achieved a decade ago.
Pavlyuchenkova has won 15 of her past 19 matches.
Bencic, one of only three Top 10 seeds left, ended Krejcikova’s brilliant run of 22 wins in 23 matches. It was the Swiss player’s 20th match-win for the year.
Bencic is a versatile player; her best results have come last month on the grass in Berlin (semifinals) and the clay in Madrid (quarterfinals). Her finest major effort is reaching the semifinals at the 2019 US Open.
Head-to-head: Bencic, 4-2. Bencic’s biggest win was 2019 Wimbledon, but Pavlyuchenkova won the most recent meeting in 2020 Dubai.
No.7 Garbiñe Muguruza vs. No.15 Elena Rybakina
Don’t look now, but Muguruza seems to be on one of those unconscious runs that have already brought her two major titles, at 2016 Roland Garros and 2017 Wimbledon.
The 27-year-old from Spain defeated Alison van Uytvanck 6-4, 6-1 and has won each of the six sets she’s played.
Rybakina later defeated Donna Vekic 7-6(3), 6-4.
She’s ranked No.20 and coming off a fourth-round appearance at Wimbledon – and a career-best quarterfinal at the French Open. Vekic had produced one of the biggest upsets so far, eliminating Sabalenka in the second round.
Head-to-head: Muguruza, 1-0. This one came just last month, a 6-4, 6-3 win on grass in the round of 16 at Berlin.
No.4 Elina Svitolina vs. Camila Giorgi
The highest seed remaining, Svitolina outlasted No.14 Maria Sakkari 5-7, 6-3, 6-4.
Svitolina, 26, is the only player in the draw who has been in an Olympic singles quarterfinal. There’s something about this setting that enhances her game; five years ago, Svitolina beat Serena Williams in the third round at Rio de Janeiro before falling to Petra Kvitova in the quarters.
Svitolina is also the only player left who hasn’t had the benefit of a straight-sets win; she’s gone the three-set distance all three times.
Meanwhile, Giorgi’s uber-aggressive attitude carried her past No.5 seed Karolina Pliskova 6-4, 6-2.
“I know her [Giorgi’s] game,” Svitolina said in her post-match comments. “It’s not going to be a big surprise for me. She strikes the ball big, so I have to be ready for that.”
Svitolina admitted she’s trying not to think about her aching body.
“It’s hurting here and there,” she said. “In the end, I’m very happy with the win today. It was another tough battle but it definitely brings me a lot of confidence and I will now spend hours recovering and will be ready for tomorrow.”
Giorgi, at No.61 the lowest-ranked player left, has now beaten Pliskova twice – in straight sets – in a month’s time.
Head-to-head: 1-1. Svitolina won their first encounter, 6-2, 6-3 at 2014 Wuhan, while Giorgi was a 6-4, 4-6, 6-2 winner four years ago in Birmingham.
Marketa Vondrousova vs. Paula Badosa
And to think that Vondrousova almost didn’t get to hit a single ball in Tokyo.
Back in June when the Czech Tennis Association sent in their Olympic nominations to the International Tennis Foundation, Vondrousova was the fifth-ranked Czech player, at No. 41. But because she had an injured wrist in the second half of the 2019 season – after reaching the French Open finals – she was allowed by rule to use a protected or “frozen” ranking. That pushed her ahead of Karolina Muchova on the Czech list.
Now, the young lefty is the only Czech Republic player in the final eight – after Krejcikova and Pliskova both lost in the round of 16.
In the comprehensive 68-minute win over Osaka, Vondrousova was remarkably solid under the enormous circumstances. She struck 18 winners, against only 10 unforced errors, and broke Osaka’s usually invincible serve five times.
“I knew she was going to serve better [in the second set], so I was trying to put many returns into play,” Vondrousova said. “The end was very tight – it could have gone both ways, so I’m just happy to be through.”
So is Badosa, one of two Spanish players in the quarters. Badosa defeated Nadia Podoroska 6-2, 6-3.
This was the 29th match-win of 2021 for Badosa, who scored a second-round upset of No.6 seed Iga Swiatek. The 23-year-old Spaniard reached the quarterfinals at Roland Garros (a career best) and the fourth round at Wimbledon.
This is the only unseeded matchup among quarterfinals.
Head-to-head: Badosa, 1-0. The Spaniard was a 6-4, 3-6, 6-2 winner in the round of 16 at this year’s French Open.