Rome | Halep and Azarenka open with wins at Foro Italico

Action in the main draw began on Monday at the Internazionali BNL d’Italia in Rome, with wins for former World No 1s Simona Halep and Victoria Azarenka, and while there were also wins for Belinda Bencic and Coco Gauff, No 14 seed Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova was upset by Leylah Fernandez.

The beginning of the match was a bit nervy, and the first game I missed a few easy balls. But starting the tournament is never easy to get into the groove... It's not about how you start, it's how you finish. Victoria Azarenka

As play got underway on Day 1, news broke that 4-times Grand Slam champion Naomi Osaka had withdrawn from the WTA 1000 tournament due to a left ankle injury, and soon after she was joined on the sidelines by Denmark’s Clara Tauson because of a low back issue.

Osaka sustained her problem at the Madrid Open last week, and struggled during a 2nd-round loss to Spain’s Sara Sorribes Tormo, whom she was slated to play in the 1st round in Rome.

“Unfortunately I’m going to have to withdraw from Rome as the injury which I picked up last week in Madrid hasn’t healed yet,” the Japanese said in a statement. “It’s an Achilles injury so I need to be careful, especially in advance of Roland Garros.”

Halep, the Italian champion in 2020 from Romania who was also a finalist in Rome in 2017 and 2018, beat France’s Alizé Cornet, 6-4 6-4, exacting revenge for her 4th round loss at the Australian Open in January, while Azarenka dispatched Swiss Viktorija Golubic, 6-3 6-0, for the 2nd time in 2 weeks.

It took Halep, who is unseeded here and trailed 1-4 in their head-to-heads dating back to 2011, an hour and 25 minutes to get past the tenacious Frenchwoman, coming through 2 tight sets to set up a 2nd-round clash against Australian Open finalist and 7th seed Danielle Collins from the USA.

Both sets followed a similar pattern, with 3 breaks in the early stages followed by Halep dominance to forge a double-break lead, but the Romanian was unable to close out either set at 5-1 and 5-2 respectively, although with the insurance break in hand, she steadied herself to serve them out at the second time of asking.

The trouble Cornet has given Halep in the past was evident in the drop-shot battles that opened the match, and her last-ditch pivot to hard, flat hitting as she clung on to the second set.

The stats sheet bears out how closely contested the match was at times, with both players tallying 24 unforced errors and Halep producing only 1 more winner, 15 to Cornet’s 14.

The Romanian, however, impressed most when she pulled away in each set, showing off the aggressive game she has been deploying alongside new coach Patrick Mouratoglou, with backhand return winners sealing 2 breaks to love in the second set.

“I like it because he has a lot of energy,” said Halep of Mouratoglou. “He’s super open to everybody, so I have to learn that because I’m quiet and introverted.

“But no, I love his personality. It’s easy for me. Actually, he does more pictures than me with the fans! That’s good.”

A careless game comprising 2 forehand errors and 2 double-faults at 5-1 in the first set was only a blip and, at 5-4, Halep came out on top of 2 spectacular lung-busting rallies to close out the opening act.

At the same stage in the second, some fine first serves sealed the victory.

Victoria Azarenka found her footing on Italian clay with a straight sets win over Viktorija Golubic at Foro Italico on Monday

© Paolo Bruno/Getty Images

Azarenka, meanwhile, breezed to her straight sets win Golubic, a week after she beat the Swiss at the Madrid Open in a tough opener, 7-6(5) 6-3.

The 2013 Rome finalist enjoyed her win here in 68 minutes, dropping just 5 points behind her first serve and racing through 12 of the last 14 points.

“The beginning of the match was a bit nervy, and the first game I missed a few easy balls,” said Azarenka afterwards. “But starting the tournament is never easy to get into the groove.

“I’m glad I found my groove, stayed really focused and really disciplined.

“It’s not about how you start, it’s how you finish. I was thinking the conditions would favour her more than in Madrid, but I felt pretty comfortable out there.”

Bencic, the Olympic champion who is seeded 12, eased past Italian wild-card Elisabetta Cocciaretto, 6-4 6-2, after an early scare.

One of 2 Italian who fell at the first hurdle, the 21-year-old Cocciaretto gave a good account of herself as she took a 3-1 lead early on before being outpaced by the Swiss.

The Foro Italico has historically been a place of little success for the former Top 10 player, and the win is just Bencic’s 3rd in her 6 trips to Rome.

“For me, it’s tough conditions in Rome,” Bencic confessed to a post match media call. “There is a lot of clay on the courts.

“I have to find my way into the matches and I feel like I can’t play my usual game here. I have to take a Plan B, or a Plan C even, so I’m happy I found a way today … and I’m happy to be in the second round.”

The 12th-seed ranks second to Ons Jabeur in clay-court victories so far this season, with 9, and will next face the winner of the match between Czech qualifier Tereza Martincova and American Amanda Anisimova, who play on Tuesday.

“I definitely feel like I’m playing well,” Bencic added. “I feel like I’m a step ahead of last year at this time, and I think it’s positive for me.

“Even sometimes when I lose matches … I’m improving and doing the right things and I feel like it’s going to be a matter of time for me to make good results consistently every week.”

Coco Gauff saw off former World No 1 Angelique Kerber in convincing fashion

© Alex Pantling/Getty Images

18-year old Gauff rolled past another former No 1 Angelique Kerber, 6-1 6-4, which proved a much easier win for the American than a near-3 hour contest with Yulia Putintseva a year ago.

The 15th seed needed just 70 minutes to defeat the German 3-time major-winner with little trouble after losing serve to start the match.

In a rematch of the Round of 16 between the two at last year’s Wimbledon, Gauff flipped the script and nearly doubled Kerber’s winner total in victory, 21 to 12, while breaking serve 5 times to send the German on a 6-match losing streak.

“We had a lot of close games even though the first set went, 6-1, a lot of games went to deuce or 30-30,” said Gauff, who made the semi-finals in Rome last year. “Footwork and movement against her was crucial.

“She can change direction on some balls that a lot of players can’t, so you don’t really expect it.

“I felt like I was off-footed a lot, but I think what came through today is really how I handled myself.”

Another teenager, 19-year old Fernandez from Canada, came from a set down to upset Pavlyuchenkova, 1-6 6-2 6-2, in a battle of 2021 Grand Slam finalists.

Pavlyuchenkova, the 2021 French Open finalist, was playing just her 2nd match since the Australian Open as she comes back from a knee injury.

“She’s an incredible player and she’s very comfortable on clay,” said Fernandez, the US Open finalist. “I knew it was going to be tough.

“The first set, I made a few mistakes and she just took advantage of it. In the second set, I just wanted to play a little more freely, just letting go of my arms.

“Even though I lost the first game, I think it helped me to get into the match. Afterwards, my balls were just going in.

“I’m just glad that I was able to keep attacking, keep being on the offensive, even though I was making mistakes, and I still kept trusting myself.”

Fernandez won the opening game and dropped the next 7 before rallying to win 12 of the last 15 games, putting away her opponent in an hour and 54 minutes, and taking advantage of 5 double-faults by Pavlyuchenkova while she converted 5 of her 10 break chances.

The Canadian’s 2nd-round opponent will be Daria Kasatkina, who advanced with a 6-4 6-3 win over Slovenia’s Tamara Zidansek.

Kasatkina prevailed in a battle of 1997-born players who were raised on clay in 1 hour and 34 minutes, avenging her only previous loss to Zidansek in the 2018 Moscow River Cup 2nd round.

Belinda Bencic came from 1-3 down to beat wild-card Elisabetta Cocciaretto on Monday

© Alex Pantling/Getty Images

Other winners on Monday included Croatian qualifier Petra Martic, who outlasted Czech Karolina Muchova, 6-2 3-6 6-1, while China’s Zhang Shuai was a 6-4 6-2 winner over Italian wild-card Martina Trevisan, Aliaksandra Sasnovich got the better of Veronika Kudermetova, 3-6 7-6(4) 6-1, Kazakhstan’s Putintseva was a 7-5 4-6 7-5 winner over fellow-qualifier Kaja Juvan from Slovenia, Ukraine’s Anhelina Kalinina outpaced American Madison Keys, 6-4 6-4, and Australia’s Ana Tomljanovic advanced after leading Camila Giorgi 6-3, 4-2 when the Italian retired.

Defending champion and World No 1 Iga Swiatek is not in action until Wednesday after receiving a bye, while Tuesday sees British No 1 Emma Raducanu take on fellow US Open winner Bianca Andreescu from Canada.

Follow all the live action on Amazon Prime Video in the UK.

Leylah Fernandez upset Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova, the 14th seed, to advance to round 2 in Rome

© Alex Pantling/Getty Images



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