Osaka Wins First Match On Clay Since 2019

Naomi Osaka (photo: @MutuaMadridOpen/Twitter)

MADRID/WASHINGTON, April 30, 2021 (by Michael Dickens)

With her 23-match winning streak snapped last month in Miami, World No. 2 Naomi Osaka decided to chill for a few weeks and reset for the European clay swing. While three weeks away from the tour may seem to be an eternity for some, the rest appears to have benefited Osaka, if her first-round performance Friday in the WTA 1000 Mutua Madrid Open is any indication.

Playing on clay for the first time in two years, the second-seeded Osaka wrapped up her one-hour and 27-minute victory over fellow Japanese Misaki Doi with her sixth ace and won 7-5, 6-2 to advance to the second round. She will face No. 20 Karolina Muchova of the Czech Republic, who beat No. 47 Wang Qiang of China, 6-1, 6-3, in back of 20 winners to just five unforced errors. Muchova outpointed Wang 60-40.

For me, I just felt like the Australian hardcourt swing, plus Miami, was kind of compressed for me,” said Osaka, who won the Australian Open crown in February for her fourth career Grand Slam crown title. “I didn’t really have time to see my family because I haven’t seen them since Christmas. I just wanted to spend time with them and chill out a little bit.”

Osaka improved to 3-0 lifetime against Doi, who is now 0-21 against Top 10 players. Osaka, who is playing in her third Mutua Madrid Open, hopes to improve upon her 2019 quarterfinal finish. Her win Friday was her first on clay since the 2019 French Open.

“I feel for me it’s exciting to go into the clay-court swing because I haven’t won a tournament on clay yet,” Osaka said during her pre-tournament Media Day virtual press conference. “Even though that does make me a bit excited, it also gives me a bit of stress because I really want to do well here.”

When Osaka was asked on Friday by Tennis TourTalk if she felt more comfortable on clay following her victory in her first match of the season on the surface, she said: “I feel like I am. I also feel like I started playing better in the second set. I want to keep improving.”

Halep happy to be back in Madrid, works hard for victory

World No. 3 Simona Halep began her first-round match against No. 46 Sara Sorribes Tormo of Spain looking like it would be a very quick day on Manolo Santana Stadium. However, after winning the first set 6-0, the Spanish No. 2 fought back as is her personality on court – a consummate fighter – and down a double break 1-5, leveled the second set at 5-all by breaking Halep in consecutive service games. It was a wakeup call for the third-seeded Romanian, who rallied at the end to win 6-0, 7-5 in one hour and 23 minutes to move into the second round.

Twice a winner in Madrid (2016-17), Halep strung together 21 winners and broke Sorribes Tormo’s serve seven times in 13 opportunities, while also capitalizing on the Spaniard’s 22 unforced errors. She outpointed her opponent 66-40 to improve to 26-7 lifetime in the Spanish capital city.

“I’m happy to be back in Madrid,” Halep said during her post-match interview on court. “It’s nice to play on the center court with a crowd. It was amazing.

“It was a great match, even if in the second set I was maybe not focusing enough. [Sara] came back strong.”

Later, during her virtual press conference Halep gave props to Sorribes Tormo. “I knew her confidence had been very high the last few months. I knew she was going to be tough; she loves the clay. Her spin is not easy to return. … I’m happy with the win.”

Tennis TourTalk asked Sorribes Tormo to describe the challenges in facing such a great competitor as Halep. “I think she was better than me,” she said. “She’s a really good player, we all know. I think she played really good. It was difficult for me to get into the match.”

Next, Halep will play No. 57 Zheng Saisai of China, who went the distance to beat No. 48 Magda Linette of Poland, 6-2, 3-6, 6-1, in just over two hours.

Sabalenka wins while enjoying big stadium atmosphere

World No. 7 and fifth seed Aryna Sabalenka of Belarus rebounded from a tough title defeat in Stuttgart last Sunday to Ashleigh Barty and beat No. 114 Vera Zvonareva of Russia, 6-1, 6-2, in 66 minutes to begin play Friday on Manolo Santana Stadium, the biggest of the show courts at La Caja Mágica in Madrid.

“I like big stadiums,” Sabalenka said Thursday during a virtual press conference in advance of her first-round match. “Doesn’t matter how they look. I feel good in them. A little more space, I feel free there.”

Sabalenka hit 37 winners, including three aces, dropped serve just once and broke Zvonareva’s serve five times while outpointing her opponent 63-37. The Russian hit just six winners and committed only 12 unforced errors.

“I really like to play in front of the people,” Sabalenka said. “I’m really happy that people will watch us. That’s given me a lot more energy. It’s actually more enjoyable to play matches when people are watching you.”

Next, Sabalenka will face No. 37 Daria Kasatkina of Russia, who needed eight match points to defeat 75th-ranked qualifier Irina-Camelia Begu of Romania, 4-6, 6-4, 7-6 (1), in three hours and one minute. Begu saved six match points during a 14-point, six-deuce eighth game in the decisive final set and saved a seventh match point en route to forcing the contest to be decided by a tie break, which Kasatkina dominated.

Tenacious Sakkari tested in win over Anisimova

No. 16 seed Maria Sakkari of Greece came back from being bageled in the opening set of her first-round match against Amanda Anisimova of the United States and won 0-6, 6-1, 6-4 to move into the second round. In a one hour and 50-minute match that was full of unpredictability, it was the World No. 19 Sakkari who showed strength and power when it mattered most.

Sakkari overcame 30 unforced errors by hitting six aces and 19 winners, while Anisimova compiled 23 winners to 37 unforced errors. Sakkari converted seven of 17 break-point chances while Anisimova broke Sakkari six times in 12 tries. Total points were even at 86.

Next, Sakkari will play No. 29 Anett Kontaveit of Estonia, who beat 88th-ranked qualifier Nina Stojanovic of Serbia, 7-6 (4), 7-5. “It was very close, many close games. I wish my serve worked better than it did,” Kontaveit told Tennis TourTalk of her first-round win, “but, I mean, I’m happy I got through a tough match like this. It was very close, very long for a two-set match. I’m glad I got through it. A win is a win.”

When Sakkari and Kontaveit meet on Sunday, it will be their ninth career head-to-head. Their series is tied 4-all and Kontaveit won their most recent clash, 2-6, 6-3, 11-9 in the Grampians Trophy in Melbourne, Australia in early February. Said Kontaveit: “It’s going to be very tough. [Maria] is playing really good tennis. She did well in Miami. When I’m out of a tournament, I always cheer for Maria. We always have competitive matches. She’s looking to get revenge from Australia; I’m hoping to do well.”

Friday’s WTA 1000 Mutua Madrid Open results

Saturday’s WTA 1000 Mutua Madrid order of play

Around La Caja Mágica 

Other first-round winners:

• World No. 9 and sixth seed Karolina Pliskova of the Czech Republic took out No. 35 Coco Gauff of the United States, 5-7, 6-3, 6-2, in two hours and two minutes. Pliskova fired 13 aces and hit 37 winners to 37 unforced errors against the American teenager, who was making her Madrid debut and playing in just her fourth WTA clay-court tournament. Gauff was done in by 12 double faults and 36 unforced errors. She was able to convert just four of 15 break points, while Pliskova was successful on six of seven.

Pliskova outpointed Gauff 102-88 to advance against No. 41 Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova of Russia, who defeated No. 23 Madison Keys of the United States, 7-5, 6-2. It was the fourth straight loss for Keys (2-5), who has not won a match since early March in the first round at Dubai.

• No. 11 seed Jennifer Brady ended a four-match losing streak and won for the first time since the Australian Open as she defeated 91st-ranked wild card Venus Williams 6-2, 6-4 in an all-American battle that closed out play on Manolo Santana Stadium Friday evening. The World No. 14 Brady outpointed Williams, a 2010 Madrid finalist, 78-58 and hit 19 winners to 15 unforced errors. Meanwhile, Williams served the fourth of four double faults on match point. She hit 14 winners and 27 unforced errors.

Next, Brady, one of 10 American women in the singles draw, will face No. 50 Jelena Ostapenko of Latvia, who beat 73rd-ranked lucky loser Polona Hercog of Slovenia, 6-3, 6-1, in 64 minutes.

• World No. 15 Victoria Azarenka, seeded 12th, advanced over No. 32 Ekaterina Alexandrova of Russia, 7-5, 3-6, 6-1, in two hours and three minutes, with the help of nine double faults and 39 unforced errors by her opponent. In her first match in a month and first this year on clay, the 12th-seeded Belarusian won on her second match point to set up a second-round meeting against Jessica Pegula of the United States. The 33rd-ranked Pegula defeated 58th-ranked Istanbul champion Sorana Cirstea of Romania, 7-6 (5), 6-3, aided by five aces and 19 winners.

• World No. 16 Elise Mertens of Belgium beat No. 44 Zhang Shuai of China, 6-3 6-3, in one hour and 23 minutes, outpointing her opponent 65-48. Next, the No. 13 seed Mertens will face No. 22 Elena Rybakina of Kazakhstan, who beat 78th-ranked qualifier Ajla Tomljanovic of Australia, 6-4, 6-0.

• Doubles No. 3 seeds Gabriela Dabrowski of Canada and Demi Schuurs of the Netherlands advanced to the second round with their win over Oksana Kalashnikova of Georgia and Alla Kudryavtseva of Russia, 7-6 (2), 7-5, but No. 6 seeds Chan Hao-Ching and Latisha Chan were upset by Petra Martic of Croatia and Shelby Rogers, 2-6, 6-3, 10-3. Also, No. 8 seeds Hayley Carter of the United States and Luisa Stefani of Brazil lost to Bethanie Mattek-Sands of the United States and Iga Swiatek of Poland, 2-6, 6-3, 10-6.

What they’re telling Tennis TourTalk

Naomi Osaka, after her win against fellow Japanese Misaki Doi, on if there’s any extra challenge or pressure in playing against another Japanese player: “For me, I definitely do feel a lot of extra pressure, just because you – obviously – want to play well against a player from the same country.  I never really know what to expect because I feel [Misaki] always plays better when I play against her. It’s a bit tough to manage controlling my emotions. I think I was able to do it pretty well.”

Anett Kontaveit, after her win against Nina Stojanovic, spoke about whether her body had healed after her draining quarterfinal loss to Aryna Sabalenka a week ago in Stuttgart:  “The whole preparation for this tournament was a little bit slow. It took my body a lot of time to recover from that last match. Today, my shoulder was fine, it wasn’t aching. My back was fine. Just a few muscle sorenesses. Maybe my energy wasn’t 100 percent there, but I have another day off now. Hopefully, it’s going to be fine for the next match.”

Sara Sorribes Tormo on the importance of having fan support during her match against Simona Halep, including some of her fellow Spaniards like Carla Suárez Navarro and Paula Badosa: “It was very good for me. Playing in Spain with fans is always an amazing feeling. I’m so happy that Carla and Paula came to the match. Super happy with that.”