The former world No. 1 lost 6-0, 6-3 to the 21-year-old Osaka in what was Azarenka’s fourth tournament of the season.
Playing just her second event in more than eight months, Azarenka made an impressive run to the semi-finals in Miami in March. After her return from maternity leave on grass last year in June, the Belarusian only played two tournaments — Mallorca and Wimbledon — before she was forced to stay away from competition due to a custody dispute with the father of her child.
In Madrid last week, Azarenka confirmed she will be playing through Wimbledon but her clay preparations for Roland Garros took a hit in Rome with her heavy defeat to Osaka.
“I think that nothing was working well for me today. It was a really poor performance on my part. Even though I created some opportunities in the second set, I did not take any of them. Today was a really, really bad day,” Azarenka told Sport360 of her match against the young Japanese.
Osaka is enjoying a stellar season in which she clinched a maiden WTA title in Indian Wells in March and has posted wins over the likes of world No. 1 Simona Halep, Serena Williams and now Azarenka.
“It’s hard for me to judge her game today as I think I couldn’t find any really things that would work well for me. But she’s a powerful player, she has big shots and she used them pretty well today. But it’s hard for me to judge based on today,” said Azarenka of Osaka.
Azarenka has played just three matches on clay in the past two years but despite that, she isn’t planning on entering a tournament next week before the French Open.
“No I’m not going to do that,” she said of the suggestion.
Azarenka’s best appearance at Roland Garros came in 2013 when she made the semi-finals.
The two-time Grand Slam champion is currently ranked No. 84 in the world.
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.
Naomi Osaka describing her dinner w Kei Nishikori & Miyu Kato:
“In Madrid, dinner starts really late & I’m an early sleeper so I was sleepy halfway through the dinner. My physio was like poking me & like ‘wake up’. Probably Kei has a weird impression of me”
Bless her heart!
— Reem Abulleil (@ReemAbulleil) May 14, 2018
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.”
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.
“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.”
Svitolina and Totti at the Roma game tonight [📸: Instagram/elisvitolina] pic.twitter.com/FAZavv7qEK
— Reem Abulleil (@ReemAbulleil) May 13, 2018