Daria Kasatkina admits she’s feeling confident this clay season but isn’t burdening herself with expectations ahead of the French Open.
The Russian No. 15 seed was unfazed by the rain and heavy conditions that struck Rome on Tuesday and was ruthless in her 6-0, 6-4 opening round victory over Australian-Croatian Ajla Tomljanovic.
“After years, three years on tour, you get used to this,” Kasatkina told Sport360 after her win, laughing at the idea of feeling already experienced on tour at the age of 21.
“I was ready, the forecast was expected since three days so I was ready, I was expecting the rain and I was sitting and relaxing before the match and trying to focus on the things that were important.”
Kasatkina, who made back-to-back finals in Dubai and Indian Wells, is having a stellar 2018 campaign and will be one of the ones to watch at Roland Garros this month.
She says that the secret to her good form against Tomljanovic on Tuesday was feeling freedom in her variety of shots in a way that reminded her of her junior days.
“Today I felt a little bit like when I was a junior, the way I was playing, like spin, drop shot, slice… because it was pretty slow today so I had a little bit more time. I didn’t have a warm-up before the match but I felt pretty good,” said Kasatkina.
Asked if she feels she can go deep at the French Open, she added: “When you think about these things it’s not really good. Of course I’m confident and I want to go further and further especially at such big tournaments like the French Open but I’m also not expecting from myself huge, huge things because then I’m under pressure.
“I’m just trying to go on court and enjoy every second. Like today, it was a little bit like juniors, because that’s the way I play. When I was a junior I didn’t have a good backhand, so I was slicing and drop-shotting, playing lobs, so I had to use my brain now. And now it’s even better because sometimes I can even hit the backhand, so I have more options.”
When I spoke to Naomi Osaka in Dubai three months ago about taking part in Kei Nishikori’s exhibition end of last year in Japan and whether she felt her popularity was rising there, she laughed.
“Well I mean it’s Kei, like come on, everyone is there for Kei. I feel like background character number one,” Osaka said in typical self-deprecating, sarcastic fashion.
The world No. 21 often describes herself as shy but she’s been slowly coming out of her shell, making friends on tour and interacting with more tennis players.
Recently, she had dinner with Nishikori – who is a superstar back home – and fellow Japanese player Miyu Kato.
“I had dinner with Kei and Miyu Kato. And basically, it was them trying to talk to me. And I’m just giving like the one-word replies,” said the 21-year-old Osaka.
“But, to be fair, okay, in Madrid, the dinner starts really late. And I’m an early sleeper, so I was like sleepy halfway through the dinner. And so I was like (demonstrating falling asleep), and they were trying to talk.
“I went with my physio, and she was like poking me and was like, ‘Wake up!’
“I think Kei probably has like a really weird impression of me.”
Does she feel she is friends with Nishikori now?
“I want to feel like I’m friends with Kei. I’m not really sure if he thinks I’m his friend,” she responded. “He’s a really, really nice guy. It really surprises me how nice he is.”
The physios of Osaka and Nishikori set up the dinner but sadly she doesn’t think there’s be a repeat hang-out.
“It’s probably never going to happen again. Because that was just so embarrassing,” she concluded.
— Miyu Kato / 加藤 未唯 (@miyukato1121) May 4, 2018
Things continued to get hilarious in the press conference room when Dominic Thiem walked in on Tuesday.
The No. 6 seed, who is currently dating French WTA player Kristina Mladenovic (nicknamed Kiki), has been friends with Latvian Ernests Gulbis for years, as they both spend a significant time training at the same place in Austria.
The following conversation took place in Thiem’s pre-tournament press conference:
Question: Your relationship with Gulbis, is it still open? You still have connection with him?
Thiem: I’m in relationship now with Kiki. I finished with Gulbis and signed with Kiki.
No, it’s – yeah, he’s in Vienna practicing. So, when I’m there and he’s there, we see each other every day. Actually, before clay court season, we practiced together for two weeks. And he’s playing well in practice, playing good.
For him, as well, there was a lot of change. He’s a father now so that’s, for sure, a big change for him. But in general, we still have a good relationship. And I hope that he still can come back.
A post shared by Dominic Thiem (@domithiem) on
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.