The fourth day of tennis action at the Tokyo Olympics saw the remaining 16 players in women's singles, in contention for the medals on offer, contest for spots in the last eight.
The exit of arguably the heavy favourite, second seed Naomi Osaka, to Czech lefty Marketa Vondrousova, earlier in the day, saw her join fellow top three seeds, Australia's Ashleigh Barty and Aryna Sabalenka of Belarus, in the sidelines.
That result meant that all top three seeds in the draw have fallen by the wayside before the quarterfinals – an Olympic first since tennis returned to the Games, at Seoul 1988.
In one of the other matches taking place on the same day, like the Osaka-Vondrousova match-up, another pair of Olympic debutantes, in Elena Rybakina and Donna Vekic, went head-to-head for the first time ever, the latter accounting for the demise of third seed Sabalenka in the previous round.
Kazakhstan, being one of four nations along with the Russian Olympic Committee (ROC) to field a full set of four athletes each in the women's field this Olympiad, saw its medal hopes live on as Rybakina won, in a match that stretched into the night.
Rybakina recovers break deficit to edge out opening-set tiebreak
The Moscow native Rybakina served to begin evening proceedings of the day’s closing singles match on Court 1, the Kazakh holding her serve to 15.
Vekic, ranked 30 spots lower than her opponent at 50th, got on the scoreboard next as the pair eventually traded a pair of holds to love, the score now 2-1 on serve.
Another comfortable service hold for 2-2 was recorded by Vekic, and the Croat soon soared to two break chances in the next game albeit both were averted by her Kazakh opponent as the latter went on to hold serve.
At 30-30 in the next game, a loose forehand from the Vekic racket proved costly as it set up break point for 22-year-old Rybakina, which she duly took, to conjure a 4-2 lead.
A Rybakina netted backhand in the ensuing game saw her miss game point for 5-2 as her 25-year-old opponent eventually broke back courtesy off a long shot from the former’s racket.
Vekic, native of Osijek, soon had her sights on more chances to break next, racing off to two break points before receiving a double fault to ensure herself a chance to serve out the set.
An assertive powerful forehand winner by Rybakina at 30-30 on Vekic’s serve next, however, handed the Kazakh a break point, which she converted to equalise the score at 5-5.
The pair further traded service holds which sent the set to a tiebreak, where Rybakina got off to 4-0 lead, and then 5-3, fired and ace to set up set point – which went in her favour, owing to a costly double fault from her Croat opponent.
Rybakina falls early but advances in straight sets
An interesting 15-minute opening game in the second set came, which went in favour of the server Vekic, where she denied her Kazakh opponent’s three break chances besides witnessing multiple challenges go her way before closing it out after a backhand from Rybakina sailed long.
The Croat brought that momentum into the next game as she broke Rybakina to 30 to enact a 2-0 lead, only for it to be short lived as Rybakina broke right back, the latter going on to hold serve to love after that.
Vekic looked set to follow suit with another love of hold of her own, only to find herself stretched to deuce before managing to record the service hold in the end.
The next three games all went routinely to the server with an increasingly dominant Rybakina adding two more holds to love to her name.
The Kazakh then made inroads in the crucial ninth game, both tied at 4-4, by racking up two break points before taking the second to put herself a game away from victory.
Serving for the match, Rybakina did not face much issues as she did so to love, after Vekic netted a forehand volley on the run, the match thus concluding after an hour and 41 minutes on the clock.
The Kazakh-Croat pair, each sporting the same racket type, combined for a total of 14 break point opportunities, each successful in 50% of their respective opportunities – six overall for Vekic and eight for Rybakina.
However, the key to the match lied in Rybakina’s stronger serving where she delivered nine aces and three double faults, to Vekic’s four apiece in each department.
In spite of a lower first serve percentage, Rybakina was successful in 66% of points behind her first delivery in contrast to Vekic’s 55%.
Winners-wise, the Kazakh outshone her opponent with 30 of those off her racket, more than double Vekic’s total of 12, besides finishing the match with a +7 winners-unforced error differential as opposed to the Croat’s -1.
With the field in the last eight now set, it is a second in Olympic history to not feature a female quarterfinalist from the Americas, it will see Rybakina take on two-time Grand Slam champion and seventh seed Garbiñe Muguruza of Spain, each yet to drop a set here.
The pair met once in the past, on the Berlin grass last month which went the way of Muguruza, and the Spaniard, who already has 30 wins to show in 2021 entering the quarterfinal stage here, will be determined to maintain that spotless record and keep her medal quest in Tokyo going.
The rest of the quarterfinalists
Other players who also secured their berths in the last eight Tuesday include Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova, ROC athlete, who enacted an Olympic record by making the last eight with the least games dropped (seven), and she next takes on Swiss Bencic in what is poised to be their eighth meeting.
Meanwhile, the other two quarterfinal matches will see returning Olympic quarterfinalist and newlywed Elina Svitolina, the highest seed left in the draw, take on the power-packed unseeded Italian Giorgi, with the former being the best performing quarterfinalist from the previous Olympiad held, in Rio five years ago.
Badosa and Vondrousova, on the other hand, will contest the sole quarterfinal among unseeded entries as both Olympic debutantes vie for a berth in the last four, with Vondrousova, notably, by making this far, having ensured at least one Czech representation in the Olympic quarterfinals for the third time running.