Naomi Osaka downs Victoria Azarenka to set up Rome second round against Simona Halep

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Naomi Osaka recorded her first European clay victory of the season with an emphatic 6-0, 6-3 success over ex-world No. 1 Victoria Azarenka to set up a daunting second round against top seed and last year’s runner-up Simona Halep.

Osaka, who claimed the first title of his career in Indian Wells last March, needed just 73 minutes to overcome Azarenka, who had defeated the Japanese easily in their only previous meeting, at the Australian Open in 2016.

“My original goal, just playing it, was to do better than I did last time,” said Osaka on Monday.

“And I wasn’t really thinking much after I won the first game. I just really tried to keep the momentum going. And I was really glad that I was able to finish it at that score line.

“But, it didn’t really feel like it was as easy as I think people think it was. But, yeah, I’m just really glad I was able to play an opponent like her. Just to even have a chance I think is really great, and I think it was fun.”

Osaka lost in the first round in Madrid last week, to China’s Zhang Shuai, after taking nearly four weeks off. The 20-year-old had a tremendous March, defeating the likes of Serena Williams, Halep, Maria Sharapova and Karolina Pliskova on the hard-courts of Indian Wells and Miami.

The world No. 21 admits she doesn’t feel quite comfortable on clay, especially trying to slide on it, but isn’t dwelling on her early exit in Madrid.

“I feel like everything sort of happens for a reason. And I think the way this year is, I’m just trying not to take anything for granted. And I’m just trying to have fun every match and see how that goes,” said Osaka.

She added: “Sometimes I stick my foot out to slide, and I just like fall.

“And little things like that. There’s different clay courts, so one can be faster and one can be slower. So, I think just finding out how to figure out the difference between them.

“But, yeah, I don’t really know how to explain it. But I’m not really that comfortable on clay yet. And I know there’s a lot of people that grew up on red clay, so just hopefully to be on the level of comfort as them.”

Osaka and Halep have split their two meetings against one another so far this season (Halep won at the Australian Open, Osaka won in Indian Wells) but the Japanese youngster knows that her opponent is formidable on clay.

“I had the chance to play her in the French Open one time. And she played really good. And I think that I played good, too, that day. And I practiced with her in Madrid, actually,” said Osaka.

“I feel like she moves really amazing on clay. And just seeing how that’s gonna go ’cause it’s definitely not like Indian Wells, this surface. So, yeah, I just think it’ll be very interesting.”

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Elina Svitolina hoping for another pizza celebration in Rome

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Svitolina beat Halep in last year's Rome final.

Elina Svitolina is looking to create some more happy memories in Rome as she begins her title defence on Tuesday against Croatian Petra Martic.

The reigning champion was given the royal treatment at the Stadio Olimpico on Sunday, where she attended the Roma-Juve game, met Italian football legends Francesco Totti and Alessandro del Piero and was gifted a Roma jersey with her name on it.

Seeded No. 4 at the Foro Italico this week, Svitolina will be looking to jump-start her clay campaign having had indifferent results on the surface so far this season, losing in the Stuttgart quarter-finals and Madrid second round.

The Ukrainian’s triumph in Rome last year gave her one of the biggest titles of her career and she reflects fondly on how things unfolded for her, en route to an impressive win over Simona Halep in the final.

“Definitely all the tournament was really memorable. We played some tough matches from the first rounds. And then definitely, beating (Karolina) Pliskova in such a tiebreaker (11-9) in the second set, which was big,” the 23-year-old Svitolina told reporters in Rome.

“It was a great week, in general. Gave me lots of confidence going to Roland Garros. And, you know, I have great memories here. Eating pizza, definitely, after the final,” she added with a laugh.

That final against Halep, the current world No. 1, was one of four showdowns the pair had in 2017. Svitolina took three of them but fell to the Romanian in the French Open quarter-finals after holding match point and leading by a set and 5-1.

They are on opposite sides of the draw in Rome this week and could potentially face-off in the final again.

Halep couldn’t defend her title in Madrid last week, losing to Pliskova in the quarter-finals, is looking to bounce back in the Eternal City.

“I’m coming here with confidence that I’m playing okay on clay. I played final last year so I have good feelings. And we will see,” said Halep, who faces Naomi Osaka in her opening match on Wednesday.

“I cannot guarantee anything in tennis. So we will see, day by day.”

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Novak Djokovic believes Rome can be a 'good week' for him after encouraging win over Dolgopolov

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Rome has almost always been a happy hunting ground for Novak Djokovic.

Since his tournament debut in 2007, he has never lost before the quarter-finals in the Italian capital. He has lifted the trophy here four times and has reached the final on each of his last four appearances – even last season when he was going through a rough patch and had to stop for six months due to elbow injury shortly after.

And it seems the city is having its magical effect on him once again, judging from Djokovic’s encouraging 6-1, 6-3 opening round victory over Alexandr Dolgopolov that lasted just 55 minutes.

Coming on the heels of a second round exit to Kyle Edmund last week in Madrid, Djokovic’s win on Monday was just his fourth on clay this season and his seventh on any surface.

“I feel like every day has been a progress, Rome has always been a place where I felt good, where I received a lot of support, where I played well, a lot of great results and today’s match encourages me and gives me reason to believe that it can be a good week for me,” said a confident-looking Djokovic after his win.

“Let’s see, obviously I’d like to go all the way but at the same time, looking at my results I have to be a little bit more modest I would say with the expectations and see where it takes me.”

The Serb, who faces one of two qualifiers in the next round – Nikoloz Basilashvili or Filippo Baldi – admits it’s been a challenging time for him but is somehow grateful that he is getting a chance to be reflective and dig deeper to solve any underlying causes.

“As weird as it sounds for me as well, knowing that I haven’t had a major title in a while, and haven’t played good tennis in a while, I’m still glad that I’m going through this process because it allows me to get to know myself on a deeper level and address certain things that you usually don’t address when anything goes well,” explained the No. 11 seed.

Having split with his entire team a year ago, Djokovic has reunited with two members of that group during the last few weeks as he rehired his ex-coach Marian Vajda and his former fitness trainer Gebhard Phil-Gritsch after a brief period with Andre Agassi and Radek Stepanek did not pay dividends. He admits that forming the right team around him has not been easy.

“It’s all a learning curve for me and figuring out the way, how I want to move forward with tennis from this point onwards,” said Djokovic.

“I don’t have yet 100 per cent clarity in terms of what the future will look like but I’m getting there.

“I feel more comfortable on the court, more comfortable with my team, that’s where I’ve made many changes over the last 12 months and that hasn’t really brought a sense of comfort and peace to me because I always had to think, ‘Who’s going to be next to me? Do I need someone? Is that someone going to travel full-time or not? What are we going to work on?’

“New people, new ways of seeing my game and changing things and changing the racquet and all these different things. Changes in general are good when they’re focused on improvement and that’s what I’m focused on and we’ll see where it takes me.”

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