Top seed Simona Halep overcame an early scare as she was broken 5 times by local wildcard Jasime Paolini in her opening match of the Internazionali BNL d’Italia, but moved into the second round smoothly enough, 6-3 6-4, on Wednesday, while No 2 seed Karolina Plíšková swept past compatriot Barbora Strýcová, 6-3 6-3 to begin her title defence.
I like it here, and ever since I changed my feelings about Rome last year I think the conditions here can be quite good [for me]. I thought the court was actually quite fast… And because it’s so hot now, even more than in April when the tournament normally is, I think it can be good for me. Karolina Plíšková
“I was a little bit tight at the beginning,” she admitted. “Actually, the whole match it was a little bit difficult to get the rhythm and to get relaxed.
“But the first match of the tournament is always tough and she played really well.
“Her forehand was strong but so was the backhand. It was tough to find out what to do because we had never played before.
“But I’m happy I could win the match. It was a very tough one.”
While there were some hiccups, the 28-year-old Wimbledon champion found herself a break down in both sets, she recovered to seal her first victory since winning the Prague Open a month ago.
The World No 2, who had skipped the US Open due to Covid-19 concerns and opted to stay in Europe and practice on the clay courts ahead of the French Open, looked sluggish at the Foro Italico, firing 14 winners against 15 unforced errors.
Italy’s Paolini, the home player, came out hitting the ball sweetly and secured an early break before Halep’s class told in an affair that spanned one hour and 24 minutes.
It was never going to be an easy ride against an opponent who breezed by Anastasija Sevastova in the opening round as the 24-year-old came out firing.
“I felt like when I needed to, I played very well,” Halep said. “And mentally I was very strong. I didn’t give up at all.
“Also, I didn’t get very upset on court, and I’m trying to improve in that direction more and more. Today, that was a big plus.”
She will next face Dayana Yastemska, winner over Amanda Anisimova 4-6 7-6(3) 6-4, as she attempts to maintain her record of reaching at least the quarter-final in every tournament she has played this year.
Plíšková sees off Strýcová
No 2 seed Karolina Plíšková started her title defence by beating compatriot Barbora Strýcová, 6-3 6-3, converting 4 break points and smashing 26 winners past her Czech opponent.
The result extended her Internazionali BNL d’Italia winning streak to 6 matches after having too much firepower for her opening round opponent, winning 71% of her service points and hitting 26 winners in the 76-minute match.
Two breaks of serve in each set was enough to see the No 2 seed across the line to secure her 10th victory of the year and improve her head-to-head record against the world No 37 to 5-1.
“It was not an easy job, but I thought I played quite good today,” Pliskova said after the match. “I was feeling the ball, I was serving quite well, and in the important moments I just went for it. So it paid off.”
Plíšková will surely be pleased with her solid performance, dropping serve only once and winning 71% of her delivery points.
“I like it here, and ever since I changed my feelings about Rome last year I think the conditions here can be quite good [for me],” Plíšková added.
“I thought the court was actually quite fast… And because it’s so hot now, even more than in April when the tournament normally is, I think it can be good for me.”
While Strycova has enjoyed much success on the doubles court this year, winning 3 titles with partner Hsieh Su-Wei, her singles woes continued at the Foro Italico and she has yet to make it past the second round of a tournament this year.
Next up for Plíšková is Anna Blinkova who emerged victorious from the battle of the qualifiers, defeating Aliona Bolsova, 4-6 6-1 7-6(4) on Court 1.
Svitolina pushes past Pavlyuchenkova
Elina Svitolina, the 4th seed from Ukraine, beat Russia’s Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova, 6-3 7-6(4) and said her extended preparation for the clay court swing after opting out of the US Open had helped her ahead of the French Open.
“For sure, it was different as I had probably the longest preparation ever for the clay court [season], the two-times Rome winner told reporters. “To be fair I feel quite comfortable or, at least, I’m giving myself a good chance to move better.
“I try to not put so much pressure on myself, that others were not able to play on clay, because it’s important to focus on your game and try to play as good as you can.
“In the end, I’m happy because it feels easier on the clay, I would say, than other years but we’ll see.
“It’s a good chance that I can play well but there’s never a guarantee that you’ll win here or there.”
The 26-year-old said that she had worked on her touch and movement ahead of Roland Garros, which starts on Monday.
“I was trying drop shots … movement was one of the most important things for me so that was my priority,” Svitolina added. “When you’re training for so long on clay, you start to slide more, mix up things, so that was what I was doing.”
The Ukrainian was the more consistent player on her return to action for the first time since she lifted the trophy in Monterrey in February, firing 21 winners and committing 13 unforced errors in the 1 hour 47-minute affair.
She needed just one break to take the first set, and then battled back from a break down twice in the second but suffered from nerves when trying to serve it out, and the match was extended to a tiebreak.
Pavlyuchenkova couldn’t stay with Svitolina in the long rallies and failed to capitalise on her opportunities, often going for too much or making poor shot choices.
She struck 31 winners, more than her opponent, but also recorded more unforced errors with 24.
The Russian World No 36 saved 2 match points at 5-4 in the second set but was unable to save a 3rd in the tiebreak when the No 4 seed hit an audacious drop shot to seal victory.
Azarenka makes switch to beat Venus
For the second time in less than a week, Victoria Azarenka beat a Williams sister, scoring a 7-6(7) 6-2 win over Venus after toppling Serena in the US Open semi-finals last Thursday.
It was a quick but successful turnaround from the final on hard courts in New York on Saturday to the clay in Rome on Wednesday for the Belarusian.
“Different surface was definitely challenging, but I feel like I adapted very well,” Azarenka said. “I knew it wasn’t going to be easy, I knew I wasn’t going to play a perfect game today, but it was all about trying to find the right intention of what to do today. I think it worked out okay.
“I felt that this was a great match for me to figure it out, the first match on clay,” she added. “Venus played a really good match, it was good to see her also adapting to clay, changing and trying different shots. So, I’m pretty happy.”
There is no rest for Azarenka because on Thursday she takes on Australian Open champion Sofia Kenin in the third round.
“It’s going to be an interesting match because Sonya’s been my doubles partner for the last two tournaments,” said Azarenka. “We know each other quite well.
“She’s a great player, she’s obviously been playing exceptional this year.
“I feel like I’m playing all these players I’ve lost to before, so I’m kind of given an opportunity to redeem myself.”
Switzerland’s Belinda Bencic was the top-ranked women’s player to exit the Italian Open today, losing 6-3 6-1 to Montenegro’s Danka Kovinić.
There was also a win for No 10 seed Elena Rybakina over Marie Bouzkova, 7-5 7-6(3), and will meet either No 8 seed Petra Martic or Yulia Putintseva in the 3rd round; while Elise Mertens, the No 11 seed defeated Magda Linette, 6-2 6-4, and takes on Kovinić next.
Thursday sees the return of teen Coco Gauff who continues her WTA-level clay event against 2016 French Open winner and 2-time Rome semifinalist Garbiñe Muguruza.
“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.”
Britain’s No 1 Johanna Konta takes on the Romanian qualifier Irina-Camelia Begu at 10am BST, while Kiki Bertens, Anett Kontaveit and Marketa Vondrousova are also in action.