Playing her first match on clay in nearly two years, No.2 seed Naomi Osaka recovered from a slow start to defeat qualifier Misaki Doi 7-5, 6-2 in the first round of the Mutua Madrid Open.
The reigning US Open and Australian Open champion had withdrawn from last year's autumn clay swing due to a hamstring injury, and had not competed on the terre battue since her third-round loss to Katerina Siniakova at Roland Garros 2019. Despite that loss, it's a season she's happy to look back on.
"When I was playing on clay that year, I didn't feel uncomfortable at all," said Osaka. "The two matches that I lost, it was more mental than it was physical. Like, I didn't feel uncomfortable sliding or I didn't feel that tired. So I'm actually really excited to get that mindset back and to start feeling more comfortable on clay."
Osaka has stated that mastering the natural surfaces, where she is yet to reach a WTA final, is a goal for 2021. Her intention is to make her game work for clay, rather than overhaul it.
"I try to play my natural way," said Osaka. "I would say if I start thinking about grinding too much, I become a bit of a pusher and it's not really good for me. Of course you want to adapt to the clay and do things that are beneficial, but hopefully I don't change too much."
Against Japanese compatriot Doi, she kept her focus to edge a tight first set before asserting her authority in the second, eventually tallying 26 winners to 15 unforced errors.
The result improved Osaka's head-to-head against Doi to 3-0, and against Japanese players at WTA level (including qualifying) to 9-3. The only match she has lost to a countrywoman in a WTA main draw was 6-3, 6-0 to Kurumi Nara in the first round of Tokyo 2017.
"I definitely do feel a lot of extra pressure," said Osaka about playing compatriots. "You obviously want to play well against a player that's from the same country. I never really know what to expect because I feel like [Doi] always plays better when I play against her, so it's a bit tough to manage controlling my emotions. But I think I was able to do it pretty well.
"Whenever I play her or practice with her, I always feel like she should be ranked higher just based on the pace of her ball and what she's able to do. I think she has a really good forehand. It's really rare for me to feel dictated around, but there are times that she's able to capitalize on the shorter ball and just spread me far."
Osaka's assessment of Doi's talent was very much in evidence during a superb start for the latter. Swatting away drive volleys and dictating off the ground with her left-handed forehand, Doi broke immediately. But the World No.79's high-risk game also leaked errors, and after missing three points for a 3-0 lead, Osaka took control.
Increasingly comfortable in longer exchanges and finding some remarkable angles, Osaka won five out of six games to advance to 5-3. A flurry of unforced errors prevented her from serving the set out at the first go, but after battling through six deuces to break Doi again for 6-5, the former World No.1 made no mistake the second time.
Osaka's serve grew in effectiveness as the match went on. She lost just four points behind it in the second set as she sped through to set up a second-round date against Australian Open semifinalist Karolina Muchova. The Czech needed just 69 minutes to dismiss Wang Qiang 6-1, 6-3.
Sabalenka power too much for Zvonareva
No.5 seed Aryna Sabalenka overcame the experience of qualifier Vera Zvonareva and her own stubborn streak to win her opener 6-1, 6-2 in 66 minutes. The Belarusian landed 37 winners to former World No.2 Zvonareva's six, and dropped serve just once.
Sabalenka's primary struggle was with her dropshot. She had excelled with the shot en route to the Stuttgart final last week, but was 0 for 5 on it in the first set today. Nonetheless, Sabalenka persisted, and it eventually paid off. Overall, she would only win three points from her 11 dropshot attempts, but the last of those sealed match point for her.
The result is Sabalenka's first career main draw win in Madrid on her third appearance in the Spanish capital. In 2018, she came through qualifying but fell to Bernarda Pera in the first round, and in 2019 Svetlana Kuznetsova halted her at the first hurdle.
Sakkari emerges on top of seesaw battle, Kasatkina wins epic
Maria Sakkari and Daria Kasatkina both took scenic routes into the second round. No.16 seed Sakkari lost the first seven games of her match against Amanda Anisimova, but bounced back to win the next eight and eventually the match 0-6, 6-1, 6-4.
Both players were all square with 86 points each, but it took until midway through the deciding set for both Sakkari and Anisimova to play well at the same time. The Greek's early lead proved crucial. Despite the 19-year-old American threatening a late comeback by capturing several marathon games, Sakkari managed to keep her nose in front throughout, and edged over the line on her third match point.
Kasatkina needed rather more match points to close out qualifier Irina-Camelia Begu 4-6, 6-4, 7-6(1) in three hours and one minute.
The Russian had won seven of her previous eight encounters with Begu, including the past six matches and the past 10 sets in a row. But Begu has historically played some of her best tennis in Madrid, where she reached the quarterfinals in 2015 and 2016, and pushed the World No.37 all the way.
Kasatkina led 5-2 in the deciding set, but missed six match points on Begu's serve and a seventh at 6-5. But the former World No.10 held firm to dominate the ensuing tiebreak, sealing her eighth opportunity as Begu found the net. Kasatkina, a two-time titlist this season at the Phillip Island Trophy and St. Petersburg, will face Sabalenka in the second round.