Muchova’s Magical Movement Stuns Osaka In Madrid

Karolina Muchova (photo: @MutuaMadridOpen/Twitter)

MADRID/WASHINGTON, May 2, 2021 (by Michael Dickens)

Karolina Muchova will always have this week to remember. It started with her rise to World No. 20 in the WTA rankings and continued with her third win over a Top 10 player this season. On Sunday at the WTA 1000 Mutua Madrid Open, Muchova’s aggressive play and brilliant movement on red clay rewarded her with a stunning 6-4, 3-6, 6-1 victory over World No. 2 Naomi Osaka from Japan in one hour and 49 minutes on Manolo Santana Stadium, played out on a sunny late-spring afternoon in the Spanish capital city.

“It was a tough match today, but we had some preparation,” Muchova said during her virtual press conference following her victory. “I was ready to play with all I had today, and to use all the weapons I could and [do] what I can. I’m definitely happy it worked out today.”

The victory advanced Muchova to the third round of in Madrid, where she will play No. 16 seed Maria Sakkari of Greece, who need just 61 minutes to beat Estonia’s Anett Kontaveit, 6-3, 6-1.

Muchova, 24, from Olomouc, Czech Republic, thrives on challenges and in beating the Japanese superstar in her Madrid tournament debut, she has now defeated Osaka, World No. 1 Ashleigh Barty and World No. 9 Karolina Pliskova this season en route to compiling a respectable 10-4 win-loss record. Muchova has performed her magic through her ability to hit with power and precision, as evidenced by the way in which she handled Osaka – especially in the final set – and with an adroit sense of footing on the court.

“I think, in general, movement is very important when you play tennis, specifically on the clay,” Muchova explained to Tennis TourTalk, during her virtual interview following her victory. “Obviously with sliding and everything. Since I was a kid in Czech, we’ve been practicing on the clay. I’m used to it. I like to slide. It’s natural for me.”

Muchova thriving against Top 10 competition

When Tennis TourTalk pointed out to Muchova how it is that she seems to thrive against Top 10 competition and asked how she maintains such a great mindset when facing the best, she replied: “I’m working on it!” Muchova allowed herself to chuckle just a little bit. Then, in a more serious tone, she continued: “I’m getting better each match. It’s a constant work [in progress]. It’s not specific preparation if I play Top 10 players, or Top 20 or Top 50 players. It’s usually very similar, but I’m just trying to prepare as much as I can and as best I can, and then I use try to play my best on the court.”

Now that Muchova is nearly pain-free from an abdominal injury that goes back to her quarterfinal run at the Australian Open – and has limited her play to only 14 matches spanning five tournaments – she is achieving just rewards on the court. It’s reflected by Muchova’s rise in the WTA rankings, in which she achieved a career-best No. 20 last week.

Against Osaka, Muchova hit five aces and 29 winners to 25 unforced errors, was broken just once and converted four of eight break points against Osaka, who finished with five aces, 27 winners and 24 unforced errors. She broke Muchova twice in three tries, but the Czech star outpointed Osaka 84-73 by relying on steady, solid serving and hitting a heavy forehand ball to dictate points.

As Muchova explained, “I was trying to move [Osaka] as much as possible. That was the tactic. It sounds easy like that, but, you know, she’s playing really fast. So, it’s not that easy on the court.

“In the second set, especially, she started to be very aggressive. I got back to what I did in the first set in the third set, and again, tried to move her left, right, drop shots, but still in a fast way. In the third set, it went my way.”

During Osaka’s virtual press conference, the World No. 2 remained upbeat and focused on positive aspects in her loss to Muchova. “I think today, for me, it was quite different from the last time I loss in Miami. I actually think I played much better here, so I’m very happy about that,” Osaka told Tennis TourTalk.

“I think what I can take away from this is that I tried my best throughout the entire match. … I can be positive about that. Tennis wise, for me, I was too defensive in the first set. Halfway through the second set, I was able to adjust that. The third set, honestly, I started off really bad and I couldn’t afford to do that. The last three games, [Karolina] was serving really well and, unfortunately, I couldn’t hold my serve.

“I wouldn’t say I’m happy that I lost, but I think I learned a lot. So, that’s all I can hope for.”

Sakkari enjoying best-ever showing in Madrid

No. 16 seed Maria Sakkari advanced to the third round in Madrid for the first time with a 6-3, 6-1 comprehensive victory over longtime rival and friend Anett Kontaveit. In their ninth career meeting, the Greek rising star won for the fifth time against her Estonian rival, saving both break points she faced and wrapping up the second-round match in 61 minutes.

Although Sakkari hit only 10 winners, she also only made seven unforced errors and converted four of her seven break-point opportunities against the 29th-ranked Kontaveit, who hit four winners and made 12 unforced errors. Sakkari outpointed Kontaveit 58-31.

“We’re great friends outside the court,” Sakkari told Tennis TourTalk in a virtual interview.

“[Anette’s] an extremely good player. It’s always tough to play her. I’ve played her the most out of any other WTA player. She has a good game, from both sides. I’ve learned from playing her that you need to stick to a strategy and do things the right way.”

With Sakkari’s fifth career win over Kontaveit, it advanced her to face World No. 20 Karolina Muchova in Tuesday’s third round. She’s encouraged by her attitude and play in Madrid, which began with an 0-6, 6-1, 6-4 win over Amanda Anisimova of the United States on Friday.

“I’m getting used to the clay, again. I got here earlier than usual to prepare and I’m doing well for the first time,” Sakkari explained. “I have two wins already. I think today was very solid from every aspect. I served well, strategy-wise, things worked well. I have nothing to complain about.”

Sakkari acknowledged how grateful she was to be able to play in front of fans, again, and to have Greek supporters cheering for her. “It’s great to have some people back, even though it’s not a packed court,” she said.

“At least you feel like we’re slowly back to reality and that’s most important for everyone. Also, for the fans and for the players and everyone involved with the tournament, you feel like ‘we’re slowly, slowly getting there. Of course, having people supporting you is why you’re playing tennis, to be on the big stage and feeling their support.”

Around La Caja Mágica

• No. 3 seed Simona Halep, a two-time Madrid champion, improved her lifetime win-loss record against 57th-ranked Zheng Saisai of China to 3-0 following her 6-0, 6-4 victory in one hour and 19 minutes on Manolo Santana Stadium. Halep hit 19 winners, and leveraged six breaks of her opponent’s serve along with Zheng’s 23 unforced errors to advance to the third round. The World No. 3 from Romania also won points on 80 percent of Zheng’s second serve and outpointed her 68-47. During her on-court interview, Halep called her win “a great victory” and one she’s “really happy about.”

Next, she will face No. 13 seed Elise Mertens of Belgium, who eliminated No. 22 Elena Rybakina of Kazakhstan, 7-6 (4), 7-5, in two hours and 13 minutes on Arantxa Sanchez Vicario Stadium. Mertens outpointed Rybakina 101-91 and won on her third match-point opportunity.

• No. 5 seed Aryna Sabalenka was solid in her 6-3, 6-3 second-round win over No. 37 Daria Kasatkina on Manolo Santana Stadium, hitting 40 winners to 33 unforced errors and converting four of 10 break points against her Russian opponent, who hasn’t beaten a Top 10 opponent in nearly three years. Sabalenka improved her career head-to-head win-loss record against Kasatkina to 3-1. She’s made a nice recovery since losing last Sunday’s final at Stuttgart to World No. 1 Ashleigh Barty and moves into Tuesday’s third round against No. 33 Jessica Pegula of the United States, who won by walkover against No. 12 seed and two-time Madrid finalist Victoria Azarenka of Belarus, who withdrew Sunday due to a lower back injury. The World No. 15 Azarenka also pulled out of the doubles draw, where she was to have teamed with Ons Jabeur of Tunisia.

• No. 6 seed Karolina Pliskova of the Czech Republic was upset by No. 41 Anastasia Pavlyucheknova of Russia, 6-0, 7-5, in 75 minutes on Arantxa Sanchez Vicario Stadium. The Russian took advantage of five breaks of Pliskova’s serve while losing just one break. Pavlyuchekova outpointed Pliskova 67-43.

Next, Pavlyuchenkova will face No. 11 seed Jennifer Brady of the United States, who won on her third match-point opportunity with an authoritative backhand winner to beat No. 50 Jelena Ostapenko of Latvia, 6-2, 6-1, in 66 minutes on Arantxa Sanchez Vicario Stadium. The World No. 14 Brady committed just five unforced errors and saved all three break points she faced against the 2017 French Open champion. Brady outpointed Ostapenko 59-39.

Sunday’s WTA 1000 Mutua Madrid results

Monday’s WTA 1000 Mutua Madrid order of play

What they’re saying

No. 12 seed Victoria Azarenka, in a statement, on her withdrawing from Madrid: “I’m very disappointed to withdraw from the tournament. It’s been a really disappointing season for me physically, where at times I’ve felt like I’m playing really well but I’m not able to sustain my level. I’m really looking forward to finding the solution and I hope I’ll do that soon and be back playing as soon as possible.”

What they’re telling Tennis TourTalk

Simona Halep on the direction of her game on clay, in which she has won four of five matches in the past two tournaments: “I’m very pleased. Actually, I was confident when I arrived here because I’ve already played well. I had a long break after Australia – even if I played one match in Miami, which was not enough. I was struggling a little bit with official matches. I was stressed before [those] matches. Now, I feel better. I’m getting better mentally and I can say I’m enjoying playing more. I’m not feeling those negative nerves anymore. I’m in a good place now.”