Daria Kasatkina believes she’s back on track after a brief struggle that followed her breakthrough runner-up showing at Indian Wells in March.
The Russian, who turned 21 on Monday, snapped a three-match losing streak by defeat Wang Qiang in her Madrid opener, then claimed a smooth 6-3, 6-1 win over Romanian Sorana Cirstea to make the third round at the Caja Magica on Tuesday.
She defeated five top-10 opponents during that stretch and catapulted herself to a career-high No. 11.
But a quarter-final exit in Charleston – where she was the defending champion – along with opening round defeats in Miami, Stuttgart and Prague set Kasatkina back a little bit, but she’s happy to reveal that her mini slump is behind her now.
“It was tough after Indian Wells, Miami, Charleston, mentally it was very tough to handle this. Then I arrived to European clay in Stuttgart, which was not like really clay, so it was tough,” Kasatkina told Sport360 in Madrid on Tuesday.
“But I was pretty positive after that. I had a few tournaments which were like warm-up before the big ones like Madrid, Rome and Roland Garros. I started to work better and I feel much better so I think everything is going in the right way.
“It’s a little bit pressure, some expectations from the side, and also from your side, you think if you play the finals of the big tournaments you need to play like this every week, which is really difficult. You have to get used to it and get more experience, so from this part it’s pretty tough but I’m getting used to it, thank to my team who is always supporting me.”
As a former junior Roland Garros champion (2014), Kasatkina grew up loving the clay and her only career title thus far came on the green clay of Charleston last year.
But her positive results on hard courts recently means she finds it hard to single out clay as her favourite surface nowadays.
“In juniors I used to prefer it much more than hard court but for the moment I cannot say that I prefer clay to hard courts. I like clay, but at the same time I’m feeling pretty confident on hard courts too. I’m happy because it seems like my hard-court tennis went to another level which is good,” she explains.
Kasatkina next faces either third-seeded home star Garbine Muguruza, or Croatian Donna Vekic in the third round in the Spanish capital.
— WTA Insider (@WTA_insider) May 7, 2018
Besides getting to celebrate her birthday in Madrid, Kasatkina also watched Sunday’s Clasico closely, as an avid Barcelona fan.
She once said that if she were a football player, she would be Andres Iniesta and she admits she got emotional watching him contest his last-ever Clasico.
“I was watching of course two days ago. It was very emotional, I almost cried when he left the field. Time flies unfortunately. But it was a very nice story,” said the Russian.
In Madrid, a city that loves to nap, Petra Kvitova finally got a chance to enjoy a well-deserved siesta on her day off, before she returned to the court on Tuesday to log her seventh consecutive match win.
The world No. 10 played her Madrid Open first round within 30 hours from her Prague Open final, claiming a sixth victory in as many days.
On Tuesday, she took her streak to seven in a row with a 6-3, 7-6 (8) success over Olympic gold medallist Monica Puig, who owned a clean 2-0 record against Kvitova prior to this week.
“I had a good treatment yesterday, I had a nap in the afternoon, a pretty long one actually as well, so I felt good this morning, which I’m very pleased with. I don’t have any injuries or anything, so it was a good day in the office today,” said a refreshed-looking Kvitova after securing a place in the third round in the Spanish capital.
While clay isn’t necessarily Kvitova’s favourite surface, she has enjoyed success on it. She won the Madrid trophy twice, in 2011 and 2015, and her current seven-match winning run has come on the red dirt.
The Czech two-time Wimbledon champion is having a brilliant 2018, having picked up titles in St. Petersburg, Doha and Prague. This time last year, she was preparing to return from a six-month hiatus following hand surgery for injuries she sustained in a knife attack at her apartment in December 2016.
She has since won titles on every surface, and went on a 14-match winning streak on hard courts from February to March this season.
“I need to enjoy them for sure, they are great streaks, I don’t have that many in my career anyway, so everyone is pretty excited. And this one as well, on the clay it’s very special,” said Kvitova, who next plays either Anett Kontaveit or Aliaksandra Sasnovich in round three at the Caja Magica.
“Yesterday we were saying with the team that I couldn’t really imagine coming back and winning four titles already, three this year, and it’s only May. It’s a big surprise actually for me.”
Meanwhile, two-time defending champion Simona Halep eased past an ailing Elise Mertens 6-0, 6-3 to set up a third round against qualifier Kristyna Pliskova.
Halep extended her winning streak in Madrid to 14 straight matches and ended Mertens’ 13-match winning streak. Mertens had come to the Spanish capital with back-to-back titles won in Lugano and Rabat but was dealing with a stomach illness since she arrived in Madrid.
— WTA (@WTA) May 8, 2018
Home favourite Carla Suarez Navarro put together a heroic performance to upset No. 4 seed Elina Svitolina 2-6, 7-6 (3), 6-4 – her fourth win in seven meetings with the Ukrainian. Suarez Navarro sealed her win on a crazy fifth match point, in which she fell on the floor while hitting a drop shot then got up and ended up securing the victory.
It’s the same story almost every year – the clay season comes around and it immediately becomes The Rafael Nadal Show.
Nadal is just one month shy of his 32nd birthday, and he’s just as dominant on the surface as he was when he was 19.
He enters Madrid carrying a 19-match winning streak on the red dirt, and having won his last 46 consecutive sets on the surface.
For his rivals hoping to share the spoils, it must be frustrating knowing how limited their chances become when the season passes through European clay.
They also know that in order to win a clay-court title this stretch, they will more than likely have to defeat Nadal in order to pull it off.
Here’s what some of his biggest rivals said about Nadal’s clay-court reign.
Juan Martin del Potro (world No. 6)
Yes. But first you have to win a lot of matches before a Rafa match. But Rafa or Roger (Federer) are the favorites in all tournaments. We already know how it works. When we move to grass, Roger will be the favorite to win all the tournaments on grass. We already know that. I think Rafa is playing so good, but other guys have chances to beat him. We already made it in the past, so we can repeat this year. But, of course, Rafa has everything to keep winning. We just do what we can against him.
If Rafa keeps winning, I think it’s normal. But if we do good results playing against him, could be a surprise. We are looking forward to surprise him.
Dominic Thiem (world No. 7)
(Beating Rafa on clay) It’s one of the most difficult things in sport to do that, but on a good day, for some players I think it’s possible. Especially here in Madrid and in Rome, I think the chances are the highest. Because out of all the clay-court tournaments, I think here and in Rome it’s the most difficult for him. Still of course he’s playing amazing also in these tournaments but for the other players it’s a bit easier because it’s faster and a little bit higher bounce and everything.
Grigor Dimitrov (world No. 4)
For me personally that pushes me to do better and to work on the things I feel I can do better. It’s nice to have such a measuring cup (stick) so to speak, which is arguably the greatest player out there on clay, not arguably, he’s the greatest for me on clay. And just the way he plays, in a way you know how the ball is going to be, where it’s going to come and yet there’s not much you can do, but this is something that I enjoy a lot.
I love practicing against him, I love playing matches. I think it’s great to have a reference in a way, a reference like that to improve yourself. And yet you go after practice and you always try to see what else I could have done better, this shot wasn’t good enough, what can I do better? That itself pushes you to do better.
You have to try to exploit his weaknesses. He still has weaknesses and I think you can find them but the problem is sustaining that for whatever time during the match or best-of-five sets, it’s a whole other conversation.