SHENZHEN, China -- Romania's Monica Niculescu opened her 2019 campaign with a statement win, eliminating No.4 seed Jelena Ostapenko of Latvia in the opening round of the Shenzhen Open on Tuesday, by the score of 6-0, 6-2.
"I came here early, and actually I didn’t spend Christmas at home, I spent it on the plane!" Niculescu exclaimed to the media after the match. "But that suits [me] well, because I came here and I thought I really played well on Center Court. I got to have some practices before, and that’s why my game was very solid today."
World No.99 Niculescu had won their only prior meeting at the Rogers Cup in 2016, but that was prior to Ostapenko's emergence as a Grand Slam champion in 2017, when she upset Simona Halep to win the French Open. Nevertheless, this was an even easier victory for the Romanian than her three-set win in Canada three years ago, as she swept past Ostapenko after only 51 minutes of play.
Ostapenko finished the match with 35 unforced errors, well outpacing her 10 winners, and won only two of her 20 second service points. Niculescu broke the Latvian's serve with ease, converting six of eight break points as Ostapenko's breakneck game was misfiring on the day.
Niculescu, who qualified for the main draw, will face off against Kristyna Pliskova of the Czech Republic in the second round. Pliskova moved through her opening match after Peng Shuai of China retired at 3-3 in the third set due to a right thigh injury.
"I love playing in China, to be honest," said Niculescu. "I qualified and I had to play Li Na [in Beijing in 2011], and I remember they made that court especially for her -- the big one -- and I played amazing, I felt great, it was packed, and I won 6-4, 6-0."
"So that gave me the edge and the power to love it here, and actually, the people like me, like my game," Niculescu continued. "You saw how they were doing when I was hitting the slice, so I love this. I feel their emotions, and that’s why I love coming here."
The first set was entirely Niculescu's, as she jumped out to a 5-0 lead in the blink of an eye. Down a double-break and serving to stay in the opening frame, Ostapenko was unable to muster up any consistent play, and found herself down triple set point after a flurry of unforced errors.
Ostapenko succumbed on the first set point, blasting her fourth double fault of the set to allow Niculescu to claim the bagel set. The Romanian had a clean first set, with three winners and an equal number of unforced errors, but Ostapenko helped out her opponent with 14 unforced errors and not a single winner.
Ostapenko, the former World No.5 who is currently ranked 22nd, is known to turn around a match without warning due to her go-for-broke, brutal groundstrokes, and indeed she shook off the 0-6 opener by crushing returns to break for 1-0 in the second set. After a hold for 2-0, it seemed that Ostapenko might tighten up the match.
But that would be the extent of Ostapenko's mastery on the day, as her unforced errors quickly returned, while Niculescu's guile and spin carved up rallies in her favor. Niculescu got right back level at 2-2, breaking at love as another double fault by the Latvian ended that service game. Niculescu broke once more to lead 4-2 as the Romanian began to run away with the tilt.
At 4-2, Ostapenko fired some signature missiles in the rallies to draw that game to deuce, but Niculescu held firm for 5-2, putting herself one game away from the upset win. Ostapenko could not extend the clash any further, and double faulted down double match point in the following game to hand over victory to the crafty Romanian.