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Osaka and Halep get off the mark in Madrid

All the seeds in the second half of the draw came through their opening matches at the Mutua Madrid Open without mishap on Friday, including Naomi Osaka, Simona Halep, Aryna Sabalenka, Karolina Pliskova, Jennifer Brady, Victoria Azarenka, Elise Mertens and Maria Sakkari.

I never really know what to expect because I feel like she [Misaki Doi] always plays better when I play against her, so it’s a bit tough to manage controlling my emotions, but I think I was able to do it pretty well. I started playing better in the second set, so movement-wise I think it can only get better. Hopefully as I put in more hours on the court, it will just keep improving. Naomi Osaka

Only Azarenka, Pliskova and Sakkari were stretched to 3 sets, while Osaka and Halep, the World No 2 and 3, made comfortable returns to the red clay at La Caja Mágica.

Osaka, who last played on the stuff at the French Open in 2019, struck 6 aces and made 5 service breaks on her way to a first-round win against fellow Japanese Misaki Doi, 7-5 6-2, after an hour 27 minutes.

A leg injury kept Osaka out of last season’s clay-court swing, although she played and lost for Japan against Spain’s Sara Sorribes Tormo in the Fed Cup in February 2020.

“When I was playing on clay that year, I didn’t feel uncomfortable at all,” Osaka said. “The two matches that I lost, it was more mental than it was physical.

“Like, I didn’t feel uncomfortable sliding, or I didn’t feel that tired. So I’m actually really excited to get that mindset back and to start feeling more comfortable on clay.’’

Doi broke the 2nd seed in the second game, but Osaka got the immediate break back, and added another in game for a 5-3 lead.

Osaka failed to serve out the first at 5-4, though, but regrouped, edging ahead in the next game before holding serve to take the tight opening set in 54 minutes, and then dominating the second, winning 8 of the last 10 games over her countrywoman.

“I never really know what to expect because I feel like she always plays better when I play against her, so it’s a bit tough to manage controlling my emotions,” Osaka said. “But I think I was able to do it pretty well.

“I started playing better in the second set, so movement-wise I think it can only get better. Hopefully as I put in more hours on the court, it will just keep improving.

“I try to play my natural way,” she added. “I would say if I start thinking about grinding too much, I become a bit of a pusher and it’s not really good for me.

“Of course you want to adapt to the clay and do things that are beneficial, but hopefully I don’t change too much.

Osaka, the current US Open and Australian Open champion, next plays Karolina Muchova after the Czech beat China’s Qiang Wang, 6-1 6-3.

Simon Halep saw her blistering lead over Sara Sorribes Tormo pegged back but won through at La Caja Magica

© Clive Brunskill/Getty Images

Third-seeded Simona Halep, who won Madrid in 2016 and ’17, beat wild card Sorribes Tormo, 6-0 7-5, in an hour and 23 minutes.

Initially leading 6-0, 5-1, the Romanian looked on a mission as she held off a late charge from the Spaniard on Manolo Santana Stadium, sweeping the opening set in 30 minutes with the help of 9 winners to none from Sorribes Tormo.

Down a break to start the second, the unseeded Spaniard at last got on the board, breaking Halep to briefly find herself on even footing, but the former World No 1 was undeterred, swiftly restoring her break advantage to love and scoring a double-break 2 games later.

Halep restored order on her 3rd match point, having struck 21 winners to 23 unforced errors and converting 7 of 13 break point opportunities, while Sorribes Tormo will be left to rue her slow start and 22 miscues.

“She definitely played much better in the second set and she was more aggressive,” Halep said. “I lost a little bit of concentration at 5-1, and then I started to miss a little bit more. But even if I was set and 5-1 up, I knew that she can come back.”

Next for Halep is Saisai Zheng, after the Chinese defeated Poland’s Magda Linette, 6-2 3-6 6-1

Aryna Sabalenka dispatched Vera Zvonareva with the loss of just 3 games on Friday

© Clive Brunskill/Getty Images

Fifth seed Aryna Sabalenka of Belarus cruised through her opener with a 6-1 6-2 win over Russian veteran Vera Zvonareva.

Sabalenka, who was the runner-up in Stuttgart on Sunday, was emphatic in dispatching the former World No 2, showing signs of the form that took her to a 15-match winning streak through the start of the season, striking 37 winners to advance in little over an hour.

The Belarusian next takes on Daria Kasatkina from Russia, who needed 8 match points to see off Romanian qualifier Irina-Camelia Begu, 4-6 6-4 7-6(1) in 3 hours.

Karolina Pliskova, the No 6 seed, has had a bit of a torrid time of late but she fought back from a set down to oust American teenager, Coco Gauff, 5-7 6-3 6-2.

The Czech former No 1 was 9-7 in matches won this year coming into Madrid, but managed to correct her double-faults, got on a run and overcame some early third set troubles to pull through.

“We never played so it was definitely a difficult match,” Pliskova said on-court. “I think I didn’t start really well, but later in the match, I was finding by game and finding my serve.

“This was very important in this match because she can also serve very big.

“I’m super happy that I’m through. I’ve played one semi-final here, so I’ve had a couple of good matches here in the past, but I’m hoping to, hopefully, improve my game in the next match.”

While Pliskova finished with 9 double faults, 7 of which occurred in the first set, to 13 aces, Gauff tossed in 12 doubles.

Despite landing over 70 percent of her first serves in the first set, Pliskova was slow to adjust to the conditions at the Caja Mágica in her first match of the week, but she raised her level in the face of adversity to fight another day.

Up next, Pliskova will face Russian Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova, who beat Madison Keys from the US, 7-5 6-2.

Jennifer Brady completed the first round of matches with a straight sets win over Venus Williams in Madrid

© Clive Brunskill/Getty Images

Two more seeds went the distance in their respective contests, with 12th seed Victoria Azarenka of Belarus overcoming Ekaterina Alexandrova of Russia, 7-5 3-6 6-1, and 16th seed Maria Sakkari of Greece coming back from being bagelled in the first set to win, 0-6 6-1 6-4, against Amanda Anisimova of the United States.

Sakkari, who could face Osaka in the 3rd round, sets up a clash against Anett Kontaveit from Estonia, who got past Serb qualifier Nina Stojanovic, 7-6(4) 7-5.

The Greek ended Osaka’s 23-match winning run in Miami earlier this month.

Wrapping up the first round at the Mutua Madrid Open, No 11 seed Jennifer Brady scored her first victory since the Australian Open by beating compatriot, Venus Williams, saving 10 of 13 break points to put out the veteran.

Brady lost her serve in the long opening game but righted the ship against the 7-time Grand Slam champion.

“I was really excited to play Venus,” Brady said. “She’s such a legend of our sport, and when I saw the draw came out, I was like, ‘Okay, that’s awesome. What a great opportunity to play such a legend’.

“I battled, and it wasn’t easy, but I’m happy that I came out with a win.”

Trailing 2-1, Brady won 5 straight games to take a one-set lead, but Williams again broke in the second, winning a titanic game on Brady’s serve at 1-1 on her 6th break point,

She could not stave off another surge by the World No 14, however, and from 3-1 down, Brady won 5 of the match’s last 6 games.

After the 96-minute affair, Brady will next face former French Open winner Jelena Ostapenko in the second round, as the Latvian eased to a 6-3 6-1 win over Slovenian lucky loser Polona Hercog.

In other matches, 13th seed Elise Mertens of Belgium took out China’s Shuai Zhang, 6-3 6-3, while Jessica Pegula of the United States defeated Romania’s Sorana Cirstea, 7-6(5) 6-3..

Cirstea, 31, won the Istanbul clay court title last weekend, her second career triumph coming 13 years after her first.



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