Ash Barty holds off Heather Watson to move past Olympic singles frustration

Ash Barty was able to “find some pretty good stuff” when required in her Western & Southern Open victory over British qualifier Heather Watson, in the Australian’s first match since her shock first round exit at the Tokyo Olympics.

World No 1 Barty needed to shake off some rust before overcoming Watson 6-4, 7-6 (3) after a tough one hour, 46 minute duel at the WTA 1000 event in Cincinnati.

Barty, who showed signs of her brilliant best even while serving up eight double faults in an uneven performance, reckoned she had to “dig deep” to finally subdue Watson’s resistance on a hot afternoon – and she enjoyed the experience.

“Heather’s an extremely tough opponent. It was always going to be an exceptionally tough match for me to find my groove and rhythm and there’s a little bit of work to be done,” Barty said in her on-court interview.

“It’s our career and our livelihood – but it’s just a game. Sometimes you have to find a way to enjoy the fight, enjoy the battle and it was certainly one of those matches today when I had to dig deep. And I felt like when it really mattered, I was able to find some pretty good stuff.”

There was a certain inevitability that once Barty slipped into another gear she would go on and set up a last-16 encounter with defending champion Victoria Azarenka, who beat Alison Riske 6-2, 7-5.

Wimbledon champion Barty, who was left deeply frustrated by her shock loss in the draining heat of Tokyo to Spain’s Sara Sorribes Tormo, appeared hungry and opened up in brilliant fashion, racing into a 3-0 lead against Watson. She was pegged back but regained control with a break to love and closed out the first set with a glorious forehand drive.

After the second set went with serve, Barty earned an immediate mini-break with a cracking forehand, her 29th winner, in the tie-breaker to dictate proceedings. The Queenslander powered down her ninth ace to earn five match points, the third of which she converted for a highly satisfactory return to tour action.

Simona Halep withdrew from her third-round match against Jessica Pegula to leave her participation in the upcoming US Open in doubt. Halep, a three-time finalist in Cincinnati, suffered a small tear during her second-round victory over Magda Linette and faces a race against time to be ready for Flushing Meadows.

Naomi Osaka fought back from a set and a break down to beat American teenager Coco Gauff and will meet wildcard Jil Teichmann in the round of 16. A month after beating her on the grass at Wimbledon, Tunisia’s Ons Jabeur picked up another win over Poland’s Iga Swiatek, a 6-3, 6-3 victory in just 78 minutes.

Former world number one Angelique Kerber picked up a notable win over Elina Svitolina. The German won 7-5, 2-6, 6-4 after Svitolina had won their previous seven meetings. Petra Kvitova beat Veronika Kudermetova 6-2, 6-4 to progress but there was a surprise late in the day when Aryna Sabalenka was beaten 5-7 6-2 7-6 (4) by Spain’s Paula Badosa.

Seeded players Elise Mertens and Bianca Andreescu lost to Elena Rybakina and Karolina Muchova respectively, while Jennifer Brady had to retire hurt from her match against Jelena Ostapenko.

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