Madrid Open | Konta keeps up her impressive clay form
A larger draw and a final to be played on Saturday mean that hurry is of the essence in the women’s tournament, hence a rush hour-like weekend of tennis, with 24 first round matches taking place on Sunday – so many that a few upsets were all but inevitable.
Konta (UK, 47) d. A. Riske (USA, 49) 6-4 6-1
If there were any fears that British number 1 Jo Konta might be either too exhausted or too down in the mouth after flying in following yesterday’s defeat in the Rabat final against Sakkari, they were rapidly dispelled by yet another authoritative performance on Madrid’s clay. Despite playing an opponent with a similar ranking, Konta was authoritative from the get go, returning particularly well – she won 51% of return points and was clinical on break points, converting 67% of them. The next bout looks uphill, as she will face world number 3 and clay savant Simona Halep, but Konta’s stock is looking more and more on the rise anyway, as she approaches the key weeks of the season with growing confidence.
Osaka (Jap, 1) d. D. Cibulkova (Svk, 33) 6-2 7-6 (6)
Slated for an early start and a tough draw, world number 1 Naomi Osaka started her ranking defence by obtaining her first main draw win in Madrid, despite suffering a little more than expected against former world number 4 Dominika Cibulkova, a former Madrid finalist in 2016. Even the first set was tighter than the score suggests, lasting 41 minutes, mainly due to a long final game. Both players displayed a high quality of performance, hitting more winners than unforced errors (+13 for Osaka, +8 for Cibulkova), but the Slovakian’s diminutive, 5ft3 frame ultimately doomed her, as she won only 51% of points on her serve. Despite this, she took the lead early in the second set, and even after Osaka’s counter-break, managed to fight on equal terms, aided by some exquisite drop shots, pushing the match to an emotional tie-break in which just 1 point out of the first 9 was won by the server. Ultimately, Osaka kept her cool and managed to advance with an 8-6 score, and will now be rewarded by fate with an easy until at least the quarter-finals, a welcome turn of events, as she needs to reach the final four in order to retain her position.
Halep (Rom, 3) d. M. Gasparyan (Rus, 65, Q) 6-0 6-4
The second number 1 contender who took the stage was Simona Halep, who is likely the favourite in Madrid, along with Kvitova. And just like her left-handed colleague, Halep justified the odds by cannibalizing Russian qualifier Margarita Gasparyan, who swiftly found herself on the verge of elimination, down 6-0, 5-2. The reigning world champion then took her foot off the pedal a smidge too quickly, losing one of her two breaks and almost getting caught in the quick sands of a 5-5 score. However, the Romanian re-grouped and closed the deal, winning an astounding 63% of points on Gasparyan’s first serve. She will now face Jo Konta, who should prove a more testing exam.
Kerber (Ger, 4) d. L. Tsurenko (Ukr, 26) 6-3 6-2
The third and final aspiring number 1 to perform was Angelique Kerber, who looked more assured than usual on clay against Lesia Tsurenko. Despite a few clunky service games, Kerber broke her opponent 6 times, and was especially dominant in the latter part of the match, winning the final 4 games. Next up for her will be a very interesting (and somewhat unexpected) match-up with Croat Petra Martic.
Martic (Cro, 36) d. G. Muguruza (Spa, 20) 7-5 7-6 (2)
Speaking (well, writing) of her, Martic won her sixth straight match, and, in doing so, conjured the arguably biggest upset of the day, knocking out fan favourite Garbine Muguruza in an hour and 55 minutes. The match was decided on a handful of points, as both players had set points in both sets, but Martic’s solid game prevailed. The Spaniard, who had 2 consecutive chances to level things up at 5-4, doesn’t have a good tradition in Madrid (her career record is now 5-7), but was expected to meet Kerber in a blockbuster, and will now need to focus on Rome and Paris, where she usually fares much better, whereas Martic will try to extend her streak against another Slam champion.
Parmentier (Fra, 69) d. E. Svitolina (Ukr, 6) 6-4 7-6 (6)
Two-times Rome champion was one of the most illustrious victims of the day, losing against 33-year-old Parmentier in 2 tight sets after coming back in both, from 5-1 and 3-2 respectively. Svitolina played on despite some ailing right knee pains that have kept her out since Miami. Anyway, the Ukrainian fought as usual, saving 3 match-points before finally giving way to her deserving opponent.
Ka. Pliskova (Cze, 5) d. D. Yastremska (Ukr, 38) 5-7 7-6 (5) 6-3
World number 5 Karolina Pliskova had to toil for 2 hours and 17 minutes against fast-ascending teenager Dayana Yastremska, showing once again a game not too suited to clay courts. Moreover, Pliskova was also playing her first match after an illness forced her to withdraw from the Prague Open, and had to save 4 match-points in the second set to force a decider, after suffering a comeback from 4-2 up in both sets. In the end, she broke at the right time, at 4-3 in the third, and managed to pull through.
Suarez Navarro (Spa, 27) d. M. Sakkari (Gre, 51) 6-3 6-3
Konta’s vanquisher Maria Sakkari wasn’t so lucky, facing former world number 6 and home player Carla Suarez Navarro. Sakkari’s precarious conditions showed immediately, with Navarro cruising ahead to a 5-0 lead. The Greek then settled in a little, but was still dispatched in less than 80 minutes, winning a disastrous 30% of points on her second serve.
As for the other results of Sunday’s matchday, eighth seed Sloane Stephens defeated qualifier Polona Hercog 6-2, 7-6 (4), an in-form opponent who had recently won a clay tournament in Lugano. Caroline Wozniacki’s annus horribilis continued when she was forced to retire due to a lower back injury after going 3-0 down against Alize Cornet, while Kristyna Pliskova (Karolina’s twin) came back to defeat 16 year old Marta Kostyuk (who made the headlines with a second round run at last year’s Australian Open but has now fallen outside the top 300) with a score of 3-6, 6-3, 6-2.
Surging Swiss Belinda Bencic beat Alison Van Uytvanck 6-4, 6-3, behind an erratic yet effective serve performance (she won 75% of the points on her first serve despite putting a meagre 55% into play), and will now play Russian twilighting champion Svetlana Kuznetsova, while Donna Vekic won the closest match of the day ranking-wise, eliminating Wang with a score of 7-5, 6-4 – the two are separated by just 9 positions, 25 to 16.
Zhang was soundly beaten by Ukrainian qualifier Kateryna Kozlova 6-3, 6-2 in just over an hour, while the almost homonymous Zhang won a hard-fought Chinese derby against Wang, prevailing 7-5, 7-6 (3) in 2 hours and 24 minutes of frequent breaks of serve. In another derby, this time between Spanish wildcards, Sorribes Tormo defeated over Arruabarrena Vecino with a score of 6-4, 3-6, 6-1.
Australian Open semi-finalist Danielle Collins won comfortably against 34-year-old veteran Vera Zvonareva (6-1, 6-4), and further easy victories were achieved by Buzarnescu (6-3, 6-2 against Aussie Ajla Tomljanovic) and by doubles Slam champion Kiki Mladenovic, who inflicted a harsh 6-3, 6-1 upon Barbora Strycova in a match that was actually closer than the score suggests, taking 90 minutes to complete.
Finally, three more top 20 athletes joined the group of fallen favourites and seeds: world number 14 Madison Keys suffered a rally from wildcard Sorana Cirstea (3-6, 6-4, 6-1), while number 18 Elise Mertens bowed out in 2 tight sets versus Slovakian qualifier Schmiedlova, 7-5, 7-6 (5), and number 17 (seeded 16 here) Julia Goerges lost to Viktoria Kuzmova 7-5, 6-4, folding after saving 3 break points on 5-5 in the first set, and narrowly avoiding a heavier defeat in the next one – Kuzmova could have raced ahead at 4-1 with a double break.