Olympians Arrive in Cincinnati

Just days after wearing the Red, White and Blue for the United States at the Rio Games, veteran Brian Baker was back in neon yellow Saturday winning his opening qualifying match at the Western & Southern Open. 

Baker, who defeated Argentina’s Diego Schwartzman 6-2, 6-4, is hardly alone with Olympic ties this weekend. he was one of 35 players in action Saturday who donned their nation’s colors at the Rio Games this week. 

In some ways, the Olympic tennis tournament feels like another stop on the pro tennis tour, with the usual opponents on the other side of the court and familiar training and support staff on the sidelines. It’s the national pride that sets the Olympics apart. 

“When you’re playing for your country, there’s a lot more on the line,” Baker said. “You’re not just playing for yourself. I think a lot of guys can dig into that extra level and play a little harder.”

Baker, the 31-year-old from Nashville, Tennessee, lost his opening singles match in a long three setter and he reached the second round of doubles Rajeev Ram. Baker said that while he was disappointed with the on-court results, the experience of being on Team USA and participating in the opening ceremonies was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.

The American men came away with one Olympic medal as Jack Sock and Steve Johnson took home the bronze Friday night with a 6-2, 6-4 victory over Canadians Daniel Nestor and Vasek Pospisil. The Americans are guaranteed two more tennis medals Sunday; Venus Williams and Rajeev Ram take on Bethanie Matttek-Sands and Jack Sock in an all-USA mixed doubles final. 

“They’re definitely due a big congratulatory thumbs up,” Baker said. “We were hoping for sure that someone would medal out of us. For them to do that, it’s awesome.”

Johnson is scheduled to play singles this week in Cincinnati.

Making the Most of Round 2: Mariana Duque-Marino of Colombia qualified for her second Olympics this year and said she was determined to make the most of her opportunity. She was injured at the 2012 London Games and missed out on chances to watch other sports in action. 

After her matches, she cheered on her fellow Colombians in weightlifting, judo and swimming.

“It was a really good experience,” Duque-Marino said. “It was the second time I was playing in the Olympics, so I tried to enjoy every moment. I was with athletes from my country. I am happy to represent my country in the Olympics and the Fed Cup.” 

Duque-Marino will be in second-round qualifying action Sunday in Cincinnati after posting a 7-5, 6-4 victory over Kirsten Flipkens, who made a third-round appearance at the Olympics for  of Germany. 

Surprise Singles: Saisai Zheng knew she would be playing doubles for China in Rio, but  she learned was a late addition to the singles draw. She ended up making the second round in both. 

“For me, it’s amazing,” Zheng said. “It was my dream. When I was really young, I was watching the Olympic Games. Everybody was so excited every time and cheered for our country. I was really lucky to get in singles at the last second. I was just so honored to represent the country.”

Like Duque-Marino, Zheng also went to the weight lifting and swimming sites. She said swimming in particular was excited because races were won and lost by such small margins, often she couldn’t tell who won until she looked at the scoreboard. 

Zheng is into Sunday’s second-round qualifying with a 6-4, 6-3 victory over Maria Sakkari. 

Olympic Dream: Kyle Edmund, who rallied for a 2-6, 7-6(3), 7-6(4) victory over Yen-Hsun Lu to start qualifying, is coming off an Olympic appearance for Great Britain. 

The 21-year-old has recently made his first two appearances Davis Cup appearances and said the opportunity to also play for Great Britain on the Olympic stage was something he would never forget. 

“When the reality kicks in that you are going to represent your country in the Olympics, it’s something special,” Edmund said. “As soon as I found out, I was over the moon. I couldn’t wait to go.”

Edmund said he was second on court for his opening round match but is glad he still opted to attend the Olympic opening ceremony the night before. He ended up making the second round.

Maybe Track: Ana Konjuh, who defeated Yaroslava Shvedova of Kazakhstan 7-5, 2-6, 7-6(7) in her opening qualifying match at Cincinnati, was a late addition to the singles draw in Rio. The 18-year-old from Croatia, currently ranked No. 93 in the world, reached the second round of the Olympics. 

“I didn’t expect to go, so it was last minute,” Konjuh said. “I’m really glad I did. Being with other athletes there and getting to know other sports, it was nice.”

Tennis has been Konjuh’s main sport since she started at age five, though she did practice dancing when she was very young too. After cheering on the Croatian teams to late victories in basketball and water polo in Rio, did she see any other sport she would like to try?  

“With basketball and water polo, I’d have to be really strong for that,” Konjuh said. “I saw some of the gymnastics. That was very interesting, very much a real Olympic sport. I think maybe I’d like to be a sprinter and run the 100 meters.”