With Rome complete, attention turns to the the final warmup event before Roland Garros, which began on Sunday and takes place this week in Strasbourg, France, where Elina Svitolina, Kiki Bertens and Aryna Sabalenka lead the field.
I [knew] I had to play really well, keep my level up. I would say I was delivering this game. But actually it was a lot ups and downs, maybe because of expectations I was playing a little bit too calm [at the beginning]. I tried my best to come back with my ‘fight’ spirit and just fight for every point. It worked really well, and I’m happy that I got this win. Aryna Sabalenka
Bertens was moved from her No 3 seed spot in the draw to the top seed slot following the withdrawal of Karolina Pliskova, the injured finalist in Rome, and with Svitolina, received a bye.
No 4 seed Aryna Sabalenka, however was in action on Monday, overpowering Australian qualifier Ellen Perez in straight sets to reach the second round where she takes on Anna Blinkova from Russia, who dispatched French Lucky Loser Myrtille Georges, 6-1 6-1.
It took Sabalenka just over an hour to move past Perez after taking an early 3-0 lead in both sets.
Perez fought her way back into the match but couldn’t overcome Sabalenka’s firepower, who broke her serve 4 times and won 70% of points behind her own first serves en route to a 6-4 6-3 victory in just 69 minutes.
“I [knew] I had to play really well, keep my level up,” Sabalenka said in her post-match press conference. “I would say I was delivering this game.
“But actually it was a lot ups and downs, maybe because of expectations I was playing a little bit too calm [at the beginning].
“I tried my best to come back with my ‘fight’ spirit and just fight for every point. It worked really well, and I’m happy that I got this win.”
Last year, Sabalenka reached her second career clay court semi-final in Strasbourg, and she looked right at home again here, covering the court with ease and forcing Perez to go for bigger shots which drew out the unforced errors.
Perez, however, stayed patient and got her name on the scoreboard with two holds to love, fighting through serve woes that saw her land 44% of first serves in the first set.
She raised her level, taking advantage of a wobbly Sabalenka to break at 4-3 but the Belarusian continued to apply the scoreboard pressure as Perez trailed on serve, breaking serve once more to close out the set, 6-4.
“I was just trying to keep playing in every point, and keep enjoying just being on the court,” Sabalenka said. “I was trying stay in the rallies as much as I can and try to move her.
“And also just try to be ‘me’ on the court – a little bit more aggressive. That helped me to close it out.”
After the match, Sabalenka confirmed the end of her coaching partnership with Dieter Kindlmann after the US Open.
“I told him that I think I’m not ready for a new person on my team,” she explained. “He’s a great guy, great coach, but I’m just not ready. I’m going to work with my hitting partner for now as my coach.”
Hibino sees off Stephens
No 8 seed Sloane Stephens was upset on the clay by Japan’s Nao Hibino, who earned her first victory of the tour’s restart with a three-set win over the American, 6-2 3-6 6-1.
The World No 83 took an hour and 45 minutes to see of the former Roland Garros finalist.
“Last week, I lost in qualies in Rome and it was not a good match, so I learned from that,” Hibino said afterwards.
“Of course, Sloane is a good player, especially on clay courts. I prepared mentally and with tactics, so I think it helped a lot today.”
In a match that saw a combined 34 break points for both players, Hibino broke serve 9 times and never trailed in each set she won, breaking serve twice to set the tone and holding on from there.
After the pair split sets, the American was unable to capitalise on a 0-40 lead in the first game of the decider and never again got close to breaking serve from there.
“In the first two sets, I was expecting her mistakes a little bit,” Hibino added. “In the final set, I tried to hit more heavy shots and tried to go for it and win the points.”
Serving 11 double faults of her own in the contest, Stephens saved a match point to deny Hibino a bagel, but the Japanese No 3 ultimately wrapped up victory on her third match point.
Hibino next faces Kazakhstan’s Zarina Diyas for a spot in the quarter-finals.
Diyas, the World No 73, came through a marathon victory over American qualifier Christina McHale in 3 hours and 8 minutes, rallying from a set and 4-0 down to win, 6-7(4) 7-5 7-6(3).
“She’s a very low-ball hitter, but I’ve played against her a couple of times so I know how she plays,” Hibino said. “Nothing will change, so I’ll just prepare mentally and with tactics like today.”
In other results, Amanda Anisimova, the American No 6 seed, was upset by Switzerland’s Jil Teichmann, the Lexington finalist, 6-2 6-3, while French Wild Card Clara Burel battled past Kateryna Bondarenko from Ukraine, 3-6 6-1 6-4; and Chinese qualifier Shuai Zhang took out Australia’s Ajla Tomljanovic, 3-6 6-4 6-2.