Bagels are pretty rare in pro tennis but in Rome on Thursday, Johanna Konta and Victoria Azarenka scored three between them – Konta taking one against clay-court specialist Irina-Camelia Begu, 6-0 6-4, while just five days after losing the US Open final, Azarenka dismissed her doubles partner Sofia Kenin, 6-0, 6-0.
I think I’m building on each match as I’m playing. It is a very different, very strange, very unorthodox mini-season for us, so it is going to be a lot of flexibility, we’re going to have to stay very adaptable. But I don’t think there’s any reason why I can’t keep building on my level and play good tennis. Johanna Konta
Azarenka’s performance was all the more remarkable since she had to switch surfaces from hard on Saturday to clay on Wednesday when she battled past Venus Williams in a tough two-setter, and followed that with another dominant display on Thursday night on Campo Centrale to stun the No 3 seed without the loss of a game in 61 minutes to move into the third round at the Internazionale BNL d’Italia.
“I feel that I played really smart tennis today,” Azarenka told press. “I was able to use a lot of court, I was able to use a lot of different pace so I’m very happy with that.
“But the key to the scoreline was definitely being able to maintain the level that I started with.”
The Belarusian recorded just one unforced error in a 22-minute opening set against Kenin, who had no response to Azarenka’s relentless barrage.
She attacked the returns, redirecting the ball at will and kept Kenin, who is still seeking her first WTA-level quarter-final on clay, on the run.
Azarenka reeled off the first 6 games of the match in dominant fashion, hitting 93% of first serves and allowing Kenin just 8 points en route to the first bagel set.
“I think I used my serve smart today,” Azarenka said. “I went for bigger serves when I needed, I went for variety when I needed.
“It was great, and I wasn’t feeling that great in the warmup, so it worked out in the match.”
She did not lose any focus in the second, knowing that to give the American in inch of leeway could cost her dearly.
“It can be a double-edged sword because she kind of knows my game as well,” Azarenka said. “I felt like I was really more focused on what I can do today on the court rather than what she does well.”
The 31-year-old is now 14-2 since the tours resumed in August, and says she is hyper-focused, stressing that since her personal problems have eased, she is able to zone in on her career again, and is having a lot of fun on court.
Kenin, the 2020 Australian Open champion, showed her grit, determined to make every game a battle and pushed Azarenka hard in two marathon games in the second set.
She finally reached deuce on Azarenka’s serve and saved 3 break points of her own, but after fighting for 15 minutes, Kenin still had nothing to show for her efforts as the Belarusian consolidated her lead to 2-0.
“I was really more focused on what I can do today on the court, than on what she does well,” Azarenka said. “So I think that was the difference, I was able to insist on my level and insist on my pace.”
Azarenka made a tidy 10 winners to just 4 unforced errors across the two nearly-flawless sets of tennis, outpacing Kenin’s 11 winners and 22 unforced errors as she rolled to her first Top 5 victory since defeating Karolina Pliskova last year in Stuttgart.
Awaiting Azarenka in the third round will be Russian qualifier Daria Kasatkina, who beat Katerina Siniakova earlier in the day, 6-2 6-3.
Konta bagels Begu
Johanna Konta began her clay-court season in emphatic style, claiming her bagel and dropping just 4 games as she dispatched Romanian Irina-Camelia Begu, 6-0 6-4.
It was Konta’s first match since her second-round defeat at the US Open a fortnight ago, and her fifth straight appearance in the Rome main draw.
“I think I’m building on each match as I’m playing,” Konta told the media, after the victory. “It is a very different, very strange, very unorthodox mini-season for us, so it is going to be a lot of flexibility, we’re going to have to stay very adaptable.
“But I don’t think there’s any reason why I can’t keep building on my level and play good tennis.”
The No 7 seed has now made the round of 16 all five times and had her big breakthrough at the tournament last year, when she went all the way to the final before being defeated by Karolina Pliskova.
She went on to reach the semi-final at Roland Garros last year, and will be happy with her start on clay here as she demolished the Romanian, who had come through qualifying but was a former Top 25 player with considerable prowess for the clay.
In her first meeting with Begu, the World No 13 stormed past the Romanian after an hour and 23 minutes of dominant play.
The Brit scored 22 winners to 12 unforced errors, and she won nearly three-quarters of points off of her first serve, while taking almost 70 percent of points when returning the Begu second service.
After the opening set bagel, it looked like being a similarly one-sided affair in the second as Konta raced into a 4-1 lead, but Begu did finally put up some resistance and made a late charge, exhibiting the clay-court skills that have earned her 3 WTA singles finals on the surface.
The Romanian used outstanding defence to break Konta for 4-2 and consolidated in the next game, drawing ever closer to a potential comeback, but the Brit was not to be denied, even after a love hold by Begu to push the set to 5-4.
Serving for the match, the British No 1 pulled her way back from 15-30 to match point and found a strong serve to set up one final forehand winner and set up a last-16 tie with former French Open champion Garbiñe Muguruza.
Konta and Muguruza have split their 4 previous meetings, with the Spaniard coming out on top in their last encounter, a tough three-set tussle at the 2019 Australian Open.
“We’ve had plenty of battles, hopefully tomorrow will be another great battle,” said Konta. “She’s definitely played some very, very good tennis this year, so that’s the Garbiñe I’m expecting to play tomorrow: very in-form, very confident, and she’s always been a great player.
“It’ll be a great challenge and a great opportunity for me to play her again.”
Muguruza battles back in third set to beat Coco Gauff in Rome
There were no bagels for Garbine Muguruza, however, who had to claw her way past the precocious teenager, Cori ‘Coco’ Gauff, to edge out the American, 7-6(3) 3-6 6-3, after a 2-hour, 28-minute battle.
The 16-year old is heralded as a future World No 1 and has already beaten the likes of Naomi Osaka, Aryna Sabalenka and Kiki Bertens, and at times it looked as if she might add the No 17-ranked Muguruza to her career resume after winning the second set and building a 2-0 lead in the third.
“It was a tough match,” Muguruza said. “The first set was tight, it could have gone either way. I was happy it went my way after a good fight.
“In the second set, I missed a couple of shots. I didn’t take the opportunities I had and she was there the whole time.
“Then in the third set, it was just a battle. I managed to be solid, to play my game and to take the opportunities I didn’t in the second set.”
There was little to pick between them in opener that lasted one minute short of an hour, but Muguruza’s hitting was marginally more penetrative as she hit 13 winners to nine from her opponent, while the frame would go all the way to a tiebreak after the players exchanged a break each.
Although the American played an extraordinary volley to take the initiative on the very first point of the breaker, the 2016 French Open champion kept in touch and moved ahead 4-3 with a well-timed ace.
After claiming the opening set on a tiebreak with another ace, Muguruza saw her 16-year-old opponent recover to win the second.
Gauff took the advantage in the third, but a game in which she hit 3 successive double-faults changed the course of the match and allowed Muguruza, the Australian Open runner-up, whose backhand was struck sweetly throughout, to move through into the last 16 in Rome for the fourth time.
Muguruza found her range when she needed it, getting the break back and eventually winning 6 of the last 7 games of the match, clinching victory after Gauff missed a forehand into the net.
That her serve let her down was clear as Gauff coughed up 15 double-faults, adding to the American’s frustrations.
“I don’t look at her as a different player,” Muguruza said after the match. “She’s here and she’s playing, and it doesn’t matter how old she is.
“She a great competitor and she can play very well, as she’s proven to us.”
In other results on Thursday, Polona Hercog of Slovenia stunned No 5 seed Kiki Bertens of the Netherlands, 6-4 6-4, and moves on to face the 2019 Roland Garros finalist and No 12 seed, Marketa Vondrousova of the Czech Republic, who defeated Dutch qualifier Arantxa Rus, 6-3 6-3.
“[Vondrousova] had great success on clay last year, and definitely a good player, a lefty,” said Hercog. “I will have to do a little bit of different things.
“Of course, I’m going to set up the plan with my coach tomorrow, and I’m really looking forward to the next challenge.”
Another seed to fall was Petra Martic as the No 8 seed went out to Yulia Putintseva from Russia, 6-3 6-7(2) 6-4; while Elena Rybakina, the 10th seed from Kazakhstan, survived a stern challenge from Czech Marie Bouzkova, 7-5 7-6(3).