ROME, Italy - No.9 seed Garbiñe Muguruza was victorious in a first-round battle between former Grand Slam champions against Sloane Stephens at the Internazionali BNL d’Italia.

It was a highly anticipated clash pitting two skilled clay court champions against each other: Stephens reached the second Grand Slam final of her career at Roland Garros in 2018, while Muguruza won the first of her two major titles in Paris in 2016. 

“It was a very tough first round,” Muguruza said. “I think I played well and I had the right game plan today against her. You never know how it’s going to go because it’s been a while since I’ve played, and it’s my first match on clay, and the conditions were difficult. 

“Despite all of that, I still managed to play at a high level and stay solid throughout the match.”

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The Spaniard had made a dream start to 2020 after teaming up with coach Conchita Martinez during the off-season, reaching the quarterfinals or better at her first five consecutive tournaments - capping it off with a run to the Australian Open final.

Muguruza returned to the clay courts looking to rebuild that momentum after recording a second-round exit at the US Open, her only tournament since the tour’s resumption. 

2020 Rome highlights: Muguruza thunders past Stephens

Drawn against Stephens in the pair’s fourth career clash, Muguruza had to battle the elements along with a determined opponent on a rainy Tuesday evening in Rome. Muguruza blasted 22 winners and broke Stephens four times to get the job done in straight sets - despite having to weather an hour-long rain delay between sets in her 6-3, 6-3 victory.

“It was unexpected, because I checked the weather and it seemed like it was okay,” Muguruza told press after the match. “But I just had to adapt. I knew I had a tough match against Sloane, she’s also a great player on clay.

“I’m just happy with my performance, since this is the third match I am able to play in a long time.”

Both players had chances in the first set on Campo Centrale, as Stephens’ rock-solid returning kept Muguruza under pressure in the first game. The Spaniard passed the early test, saving a break point to hold at 1-0. 

Muguruza seized her own opportunity a few games later as a double fault from Stephens in a nervy service game gave her break point at 2-1. Stephens held firm, but couldn’t withstand Muguruza’s backhand barrage as the Spaniard converted her next opportunity to take a 3-1 lead. 

She kept the momentum rolling as she extended her advantage to 5-1, but she struggled to serve out the set and an untimely double fault gave Stephens a lifeline as the American broke back to narrow the gap. Stephens seemed to be growing in confidence, and put up a mammoth effort as Muguruza served for the set once again, 5-3.  

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As the rain started to come down in Rome, Muguruza ultimately saved four break points and converted her fifth set point with a searing forehand to pull Stephens out wide, closing it out 6-3 before play was suspended. 

Muguruza came back an hour later and didn’t miss a beat as she powered her way to an early break, 1-0. The Spaniard faced her only break point of the set a game later, but denied Stephens as she held firm. Muguruza kept her level high and dropped only two points across her next three service games en route to a 6-3, 6-3 win in an hour and 27 minutes.

Read more: Gauff beats Jabeur in Rome debut

Her victory sets up a second-round clash against another American as 16-year-old Coco Gauff awaits in the next match. Gauff defeated Ons Jabeur in straight sets, 6-4, 6-3, earlier in the day to claim her first career WTA main draw victory on clay.

“It’s a good match, I’ve never played against her,” Muguruza said. “I’m looking forward to playing as many matches as possible. She’s playing great and she’s having a big breakthrough, so I’m looking forward to it.”