ROME, Italy -- The Round of 16 at the Internazionali BNL d'Italia will feature a marquee showdown between No.4 Maria Sakkari and No.15 Coco Gauff on Thursday. Sakkari kicked off her Rome campaign with a 6-3, 6-2 win over Madrid semifinalist Ekaterina Alexandrova. Gauff followed up her opening win over Angelique Kerber with a 6-2, 6-4 win over compatriot Madison Brengle to set up a fifth meeting against Sakkari.
Gauff's sole win over Sakkari came in Rome last year, when the teenager stunned the Greek star 6-1, 1-6, 6-2 in the second round.
"I admire her because she's a great athlete," Sakkari said. "She's a wonderful girl, which for me is more important than anything else. The way she has handled her success, She was 15 when she broke through. It was very clever from herself and from the people around her the way they handled everything.
"We played each other in Doha, which was of course hard court, different conditions. I trust my clay-court game. I think it's going to be a great match for everyone to watch."
Having drawn Alexandrova to open her tournament, Sakkari faced the tough task of stopping an in-form player. Alexandrova was devasting in her run to her first WTA 1000 semifinal last week in Madrid, where she became just the third qualifier to ever reach that stage at the Caja Magica. In contrast, Sakkari has been searching for the form that both got her to her first WTA 1000 final at Indian Wells in March, as well as put her within a point of making the Roland Garros final last year.
Ever comfortable on the clay, Sakkari found her free-swinging tennis after the first seven games against Alexandrova. From 4-3 up in the first set, Sakkari would drop just two more games in the match. She fired 19 aces to 12 unforced errors in the match, including six aces, and broke Alexandrova four times from six chances.
While Sakkari was playing her first match of the tournament by virtue of an opening-round bye, Gauff was playing her second. A semifinalist in Rome last year, Gauff kicked off her tournament with a resounding 6-1, 6-4 win over former No.1 Kerber. Against No.61 Brengle, Gauff was in full control from the start. She raced out to a 3-0 lead and played controlled tennis to keep Brengle's crafty game at bay, sealing the win in 74 minutes.
"Playing [Sakkari here] last year definitely gave me a lot of confidence," Gauff said. "That was definitely the match that I think kind of set up my confidence for the clay season. This match, regardless of the result, as long as I put up my best fight, I think I'm going to be happy.
"I'm super excited for the match because I feel like whenever I play her, there's always some good points. I'm going to be ready to run a lot because she hits some big balls, but I think it's going to be a good one."
Aryna Sabalenka feeling fresh on the clay
No.8 Aryna Sabalenka needed just 49 minutes in her opener to power past Zhang Shuai 6-2, 6-0 and advance to the Round of 16. Sabalenka fired 22 winners to 13 unforced errors and never faced a break point on her serve to dominate the World No.42, winning 53 of the 82 points played.
Sabalenka will face Madrid finalist Jessica Pegula for a spot in the quarterfinals. Pegula received a walkover into the Round of 16 after Anhelina Kalinina withdrew due to an upper back injury.
"Honestly, I feel my season just started with the clay-court season because in the beginning of the season I was struggling with a lot of things," Sabalenka said. "I couldn't serve, I couldn't play, I didn't feel well on court. I started working extra hard. From the clay-court tournaments, I started to play better. I'm feeling better and I found my fighting spirit again."
Qualifier Petra Martic ousts No.5 Anett Kontaveit
No.47 Petra Martic continued her resurgence at the Internazionali BNL d'Italia on Wednesday, deploying her controlled court craft to knock out No.5 Anett Kontaveit 6-2, 6-3 in the second round. A semifinalist in Rome last year, Martic successfully navigated qualifying to earn her spot in the main draw this year. With wins over Karolina Muchova and Kontaveit, the 31-year-old Croat now finds herself back in Rome's Round of 16, where she will face Bianca Andreescu.
Martic overcame an early break at 0-2 to reel off the next six games to pocket the opening set. With a flurry of drop shots and commanding slices that kept Kontaveit on her heels, Martic closed out the win by running off the last three games of the match. Martic's comfort on the clay at the Foro Italico shone through as she earned her first Top 10 win since 2019. The win snapped her skid of seven straight losses to Top 10 opposition.