Sakkari had enjoyed a glowing start to 2021, reaching semifinals in Abu Dhabi and Melbourne—with a 14-day quarantine preceding the latter—and had shown off her supreme fitness by debuting a web series entitled “Sparring with a Spartan.” Mladenovic, who won the women's doubles title with Timea Babos for the second time last year, opted to focus on singles this fortnight—a decision that has already paid off for the former French and US Open quarterfinalist.
After losing to Sakkari in three sets 18 months ago in Rome, the Frenchwoman turned around a second set bagel to serve out the Greek star on her third match point.
With No. 12 seed Azarenka going out to Pegula, opportunities abound for Mladenovic and those remaining in that section to reach the second week Down Under. —David Kane
After cruising in the first set, things got a little tricky for Elina Svitolina, but she finished strong to eliminate an inspired Marie Bouzkova, 6-3, 7-6 (5). The 26-year-old Ukrainian, who just lost to Elise Mertens in the quarterfinals of the Gippsland Trophy on Friday, faced a tough test as Bouzkova started to find her range.
A 12-minute game in the second set made all the difference when Svitolina erased two break points. In her next service game, she fought off a set point with a rare drop shot. Bouzkova continued to push the 15-time titlist to the limit, but it was the more experienced Svitolina who prevailed.
A few minute later, Coco Gauff wrapped up a clean 6-3, 6-2 win over Jil Teichmann in John Cain Arena. The 16-year-old needed just 56 minutes to advance. It was a very different story to her match against the same Swiss just last week when she needed a third-set tiebreak to win. —Ashley Ndebele
After 14 days of a hard lockdown, Victoria Azarenka was dumped out of the first round by world No. 61 Jessica Pegula. Azarenka held a 5-2 lead in the first set, only to lose five games in a row to drop the set.
Down 4-2 in the second set came some scary moments when the No. 12-seeded Belarusian appeared to be struggling to breath. She used an inhaler on the previous changeover, and called for a medical timeout mid-game. Despite the drama, she’d hold for 3-4 and win the next game to even the set, but then sprayed unforced errors and her seventh double fault to go down 4-5. Pegula stepped up to the challenge to clinch the upset with an ace, 7-5, 6-4. It marks her first career Australian Open win.
Azarenka, a two-time Australian Open champion, came into the match with just over a week of preparation outside of her hotel room, and one match under her belt. Pegula has been poised for a Grand Slam breakthrough: The 26-year-old cracked the Top 100 in 2019, won her first title that summer in Washington, and reached the third round of the 2020 US Open.
She trained hard during the tour shutdown and quarantine, and it’s been paying off. In her recent episode of the TENNIS.com Podcast, the American talked a lot about believing in herself and the importance of having the confidence to beat anyone on tour. —Nina Pantic