ROME, Italy -- World No. 1 Simona Halep of Romania kicked off her campaign for a first Internazionali BNL d'Italia title with a comprehensive 6-1, 6-0 victory over BNP Paribas Open champion Naomi Osaka of Japan in the second round in Rome on Wednesday.
Following three wins in a row for Halep, including a quick fourth-round victory at this year’s Australian Open, Osaka finally claimed her first win in their head-to-head in the semifinals of the BNP Paribas Open in Indian Wells. But Halep, last year's Rome runner-up, exacted revenge on the Japanese player, claiming the match in a swift 59 minutes.
"In Melbourne, I played against [Osaka], and it was also a very good match for me," Halep said to the media, after the match. "Then in Indian Wells, I don’t know what happened in that match. I couldn’t play my best tennis, and she played with confidence there. I was just motivated, remembering that match, and I was focused that I had to play as I planned before, and it was a good tactic."
"I just tried to build my points, to build a little bit of space and open the court, and tried to make winners," Halep elaborated. "It’s tough to make winners on this court, for me, but it’s good when I can build the point."
After dropping the first game of the match, the top seed reeled off 12 straight games to take down Osaka. Halep had 15 winners to 14 unforced errors in the match, while big-hitting Osaka had an off day, with 29 unforced errors to only 10 winners. The Japanese player was 0-for-6 on break points, while Halep took 80 percent of points returning Osaka's second serve.
Osaka looked perfectly capable of clinching a second straight upset of Halep in the early going. The Japanese player’s forehand was moving through the court beautifully, and she held for 1-0 before grasping four break points in the next game, which the Romanian initially led 40-0. But Halep held for 1-1 after an eight-minute battle, and, almost out of nowhere, the set veered strongly in one direction.
In the very next game, a passing shot by Halep at deuce brought up her first break point of the match, and the top seed took a 2-1 lead when an Osaka forehand went awry into the net. The Romanian began to dictate from there with deep groundstrokes, and she broke Osaka at love for 4-1, sealing that game with a stunning backhand winner down the line.
"I think that [1-0] game was really important," said Halep. "I thought about it, that I have to win it, because if she takes a 2-0 lead, it’s a little bit more difficult. I didn’t give up that game, so it was really important. Then at 3-1, I felt that I’m a little bit ahead, and I just relaxed myself, and I opened up the court much better."
At 5-1, Osaka dropped serve at love for a second game in a row, as Halep claimed the opener with a backhand crosscourt winner at triple set point. It was a smothering performance by the World No.1 in the first set, as she had nine winners to Osaka's six, and the Japanese player was undone by 14 unforced errors.
It was more of the same in the second set, as the penetrating groundstrokes with lots of action from the racquet of Halep frustrated the 20-year-old Osaka into miscues. At 1-0, the Japanese youngster, feeling the pressure on her serve, double faulted to bring up break point, and Halep’s exceptional defense led to another Osaka forehand error, and a resultant 2-0 advantage for the Romanian.
Halep did need to fend off break points in her next two service games, but well-placed, crafty serves would get her out of trouble on those occasions, as the No.1 seed was excelling in every department. When the dust settled after the first five games of the set, despite some close calls, it was Halep who held a 5-0 lead.
Osaka could not get a foothold in the match, and another forehand error into the net at 5-0, 30-30 gave Halep her first match point. There, the Romanian sent a forehand service return into the court for a winner, and skipped into the third round, where she will face No.13 seed Madison Keys of the United States, who eked by Croatian qualifier Donna Vekic, 7-6(2), 7-6(0).
"You never know now: on clay, also the big hitters can play very well," said Halep. "I just want to play like today, to make my clay-court game, and then we will see."