Defending champion Aryna Sabalenka could not get past her nemesis Amanda Anisimova in her opening match at the Mutua Madrid Open on Thursday as matches in the lower half of the draw saw wins for Paula Badosa, Simona Halep, Ons Jabeur, Belinda Bencic, Coco Gauff and Victoria Azarenka, while 5 qualifiers wreaked havoc by advancing at the cost of Karolina Pliskova and Jelena Ostapenko, amongst others.
It's stressful, nerves. I really want to do well here. I always say it. Because I'm playing in front of my people, my family, everyone. It's special. I live in Madrid, so it's even more special for me. It's crazy. Everything happened very fast and maybe, here, it's where everything started. Starting it at home, with all my people is very special. Paula Badosa
Winless in two previous visits to Madrid, Anisimova was motivated by the challenge of getting past a top player, and stepped up, ending Sabalenka’s title defence with a 6-2 3-6 6-4 win in 1 hour and 55 minutes, taking her dominance over the World No 4 to 4 wins with no losses, 3 of those coming on clay.
The No 3 seed looked to have a strong chance of defending her Madrid Open title, buoyed by the absence of top seed Iga Swiatek, who withdrew on Wednesday to rest her right shoulder, but Anisimova broke her right at the start, and then again in the 7th game before serving out the opener after saving 2 break points.
Sabalenka earned a break in the second to take a 3-1 lead, but Ansimova converted her 3rd break-back point for 3-4, prompting the 3rd seed to break for a second time to love and then served out to level proceedings.
The American survived a late comeback after losing her 4-1 lead in the decider by taking 8 of the last 10 points from 4-4 to close out the match with a final break in the 10th game.
“It’s always enjoyable to accept the challenge, even when it’s a tough match, and push yourself and see how far you can go,” Anisimova said after the win. “I enjoy these matches, even though they’re very tough … especially when you get to win them.
“She’s a tough player as well. Every match here is going to be tough, so I’m just going to go out and play my tennis, and hopefully, I can get through it.”
Anisimova advances to a second-round meeting with Petra Martic, a Croatian qualifier, who was a 7-6(6) 6-1 winner over Stuttgart semi-finalist Liudmila Samsonova.
The No 2 seed and home favourite Paula Badosa won the final 9 games to crush Veronika Kudemertova, 6-3 6-0, saving all 5 of the break points she faced against the Istanbul finalist, and converting her only break point to take a 5-3 lead before sealing the first set with a forehand winner.
The Spaniard then broke 3 times to take a bagel set in the second without dropping her serve throughout the match.
Badosa ended the affair with a 84 percent success rate behind her first service overall, and the Spaniard also won 9 of 15 points returning Kudermetova’s second serve.
“[Kudermetova is] aggressive, I knew I had to play my game, not to let her dominate a lot,” said Badosa. “So that’s what I tried to do.
“I think, at the beginning, I was nervous, but then I finished playing in a very high level.”
Rising to a career-high ranking of No 2 on Monday, the 24-year old won the biggest title of her career at Indian Wells in October.
“It’s stressful, nerves,” Badosa admitted to the media ahead of her opening match. “I really want to do well here. I always say it.
“Because I’m playing in front of my people, my family, everyone. It’s special. I live in Madrid, so it’s even more special for me.
“It’s crazy. Everything happened very fast and maybe, here, it’s where everything started. Starting it at home, with all my people is very special.”
Badosa will face two-time Madrid champion Halep from Romania next, who cruised past China’s Zhang Shuai, 6-2 6-3, in 68 minutes.
Halep, who is unseeded here after her injury-hampered last season, is looking to revive her fortunes at the age of 30 with new coach Patrick Mouratoglou now on board.
She opened the day’s action under the closed roof, converting all her 5 break points against the Chinese, earning 2 breaks in the first 5 games to go up 5-1, and sealing the opening set with a forehand winner.
Zhang earned an early break at the start of the second, but Halep struck back by winning 6 of the next 7 games to advance.
“I’m really happy that I could win this match,” Halep said later. “It means a lot. Being in Madrid, I have great memories. So everything went together today and I played a good match.
“Every time when you start with someone, it’s tough because you are nervous, you don’t know how it’s going to be.
“But I was pretty confident that everything will be okay because I have a great relation with [Mouratoglou].
“I’m honoured, because I always thought that he’s great. Now I have the confirmation that he’s great, and he’s helping me a lot with all the things that I have to improve and I have to do on court.”
Halep, who won her two titles here in 2016 and 2017 and reached two finals in 2014 and 2017, is also a two-time Grand Slam champion.
Currently ranked 21, the Romanian is competing for the first time since her Indian Wells semi-final exit 6 weeks ago, and displayed an aggressive game on the clay courts of the Caja Magica, attributing this to her new French coach.
“I used to be a little bit more negative in the past, I improved, but now it’s like, wow, even more,” said Halep of Mouratoglou. “I can open up to him super easy, I can actually say everything I feel, which is helping me because he knows how to take it ,and how to respond to my problems or my doubts.
“And he has helped me a lot with my doubts because, before meeting him, I had a lot of doubts that I cannot play at a high level again and, probably, I was thinking about stopping at one point.
“But now I’m starting to get it back, I have the fire back, and I love to be on court.”
Her decision to team up with Mouratoglou, the longtime coach of Serena Williams, after initially intending to spend some time alone on tour, has helped her find the spark she was missing, and Halep is now feeling motivated ahead of her blockbuster second-round clash with Badosa.
The two will meet for the first time in a popcorn contest.
“I think it’s going to be interesting match, because it’s going to be quite a clay-court match, very tactical, and I’m really looking forward to that,” Badosa observed. “Of course she’s a great champion.
“So maybe I’m the favourite or no, I will try to give my best, because for sure she will push me to the limits.
“I’m really looking forward to these kind of matches, because I really like them and it’s the matches that you work for, you know.”
Meanwhile, Jabeur, the 8th seed from Tunisia, edged past Italy’s Jasmine Paolini, 7-6(9) 6-1, in an hour and 22 minutes.
The match was contested partially with the roof open before it was closed as the heavens opened and, to make matters worse, the first set also had to be halted due to a malfunctioning sound system.
The changing conditions made it difficult for Jabeur to settle, and the first set went to a tiebreak.
Paolini went up a 3-0 lead with a break in the second game, but Jabeur broke back 2-3, only for the Italian to to go ahead for a second time with a 4-2 lead, saving 4 set points in the tiebreak before the Tunisian converted on her 5th chance when her opponent netted a forehand.
“The whole match, obviously, I didn’t want to play the way I wanted to play,” a relieved Jabeur said after the match. “But I’m glad I was able to get the win under such conditions.
“It changes from playing indoors to outdoors. But first match is always tough in a tournament. I’m happy that I got the win today and hopefully the level will be much better for the next matches.”
Paolini could also claim the conditions weren’t in her favour either, and she suffered a loss of momentum having taken her early, allowing Jabeur to cruise into round two where she will encounter qualifier Varvara Gracheva, who got past Frenchwoman Alizé Cornet, 1-6 7-5 7-5.
Beware the qualifier is an adage on tour, especially on the clay, as Ostapenko discovered to her cost against Ekaterina Alexandrova, the Doha title winner who also reached the semi-final in Dubai.
The 10th seed from Latvia was one of three top 10 seeds to be felled on Thursday, going down 6-2 4-6 6-4 in a ding dong battle with Alexandrova, who came through qualifying without dropping a set.
The other casualty was Pliskova, the 5th seed, at the hands on another qualifier, fellow Czech Marie Bouzkova, who upset her, 6-4 7-5.
Elsewhere, Bencic, the 11th seed from Switzerland, fired a warning shot with her demolition of Romanian qualifier Irina-Camelia Begu, dropping just 5 games on her way into round two.
The Olympic gold medallist, who won the clay season opener in Charleston, and is now unbeaten in 7 matches on the surface in 2022, moves on to face Czech Karolina Muchova, who battled past wild-card Zheng Qinwen from China, 1-6 6-3 6-4.
No 15 seed and two-time finalist here, Victoria Azarenka, came through a high-quality and tightly-contested two-setter over Viktorija Golubic, another Swiss, 7-6(5) 6-3, and she next will meet Tamara Zidansek from Slovenia, a 6-2 6-3 winner over Beatriz Haddad Maia, a lucky loser from Brazil.
Followed Jabeur onto the Arantxa Sánchez Stadium, it took Azarenka an hour and 44 minutes to advance after Golubic took an early lead in what then became a somewhat one-sided affair.
Both Azarenka and Sabalenka are from Belarus and allowed to play on the WTA Tour as neutral players but they both will be banned from Wimbledon over the invasion of Ukraine.
“If you are asking me if I agree with Wimbledon, or I see their reasoning after being on a personal call with them, I don’t see their reasoning,” Azarenka, who sits on the WTA players’ council, told reporters. “It does not make sense, and it does not connect to what they are saying.
“I think there should be a reaction to that, that is all I want to say.
“I have made my stance very clear on the issue. I will never, ever support war. I will never support violence. I will never find any justifications for that. That is all I can say right now.”
Coco Gauff, the American 14th seed, cruised past qualifier Anna Karolina Schmiedlova, 6-0 6-2, in exactly one hour to score her first win in Madrid after the teenager made her Madrid debut last year but was beaten in the first round by Pliskova.
World No 52 Nuria Parrizas Diaz from Spain made her Madrid Open debut with a sound 6-4 6-2 victory over Romania’s Sorana Cirstea giving her a first top 30 scalp.