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By Richard Pagliaro | Friday, April 30, 2021

 
Naomi Osaka

Continuing her hunt for a maiden clay-court title, world No. 2 Naomi Osaka won eight of the last 10 games topping Misaki Doi, 7-5, 6-2, in Madrid.

Photo credit: Clive Brunskill/Getty

Naomi Osaka conceded carrying mixed emotions into this Mutua Madrid Open.

The world No. 2 says she's excited launching her clay campaign in the Magic Box and admitted feeling stressed by the fact she's yet to win a clay-court title and came up against a compatriot in round one.

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Stumbling at the start, Osaka found her footing on the dirt racing through eight of the last 10 games to charge past qualifier Misaki Doi 7-5, 6-2, in an all-Japanese opener of the Mutua Madrid Open.

"I would say of course you never want to lose in the first round, so there is also those nerves coming into you, but it definitely is different playing a person from the same country," Osaka said. "For me, I know that I don't play fellow Japanese players often. When I do, I feel like it's always Misaki, but it definitely does feel different.

"I also feel like I'm expected to win just because I'm higher ranked, so there is a lot of things that come into my mind, yeah."

Continuing her hunt for her first clay title, Osaka showed signs of rust on the red clay—she surrendered serve at 15 in her opening service game and failed to serve out the first set on her first attempt—but settled in and showed several positive signs improving to 13-1 in 2021.

Transitioning from hard courts to slay is a process. All seven of Osaka's WTA titles have come on hard courts, including all four of Grand Slam titles.

In contrast, world No. 1 Ashleigh Barty has already won titles on both hard courts and clay this season as she backed up successful defense of her Miami Open title sweeping singles and doubles championships on the red clay of Stuttgart.

Osaka says she's feeling more comfortable on clay now, she knows there's much work dirty work to be done before Roland Garros begins on May 30th. 

"I feel like I am [getting more comfortable]," Osaka said. "I also feel like 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."

Playing her first match since managing just four games in a Miami Open quarterfinal loss to Maria Sakkari, Osaka struggled to land her first serve, but when she did connect it was a weapon in the higher Madrid altitude.

The second-seeded Osaka served 46 percent winning 20 of 24 points played on her first serve and fired six aces against just one double fault.

"I think she doesn't like clay. I think. I'm not sure," said Doi, who dropped to 0-21 lifetime vs. Top 10 opponents. "But still she has like big shot, big serve, big like good backhand. She has a lot of power. This is I think big thing. Compared to me, I think serving is I think a big thing."

The reigning US Open and Australian Open champion won eight of 10 points building a 5-3 lead.

The 79th-ranked Doi answered crusing through eight of the next nine points, scoring a love break to level after 10 games.

Elevating her game, Osaka broke for 6-5 then served out the set at love pumping an ace down the middle to close it in style. Osaka doubled Doi's winner output, 14 to 7, in the 57-minute opener.

Swinging more freely with the lead, Osaka whipped a heavy crosscourt forehand winner breaking to start the second set, eventually extending her streak to four games for a 2-0 second-set lead.




Working with coach Wim Fissette, Osaka has focused on her footwork making a conscious effort to reach the ball quickly and have the dexterity and discipline to make the short adjustment steps when the inevitable bad bounces on clay occur.

"But on clay I think it's much different. You have to adjust your feet in a different way," Osaka said." The bad bounces are definitely really troubling.

"But I talked to Wim and he said that that's normal and you just have to stay calm. More importantly, I think it's experience. So hopefully I get more experienced."

Osaka crunched a backhand return winner scoring her fifth break for 5-2. Osaka threw down her sixth ace out wide wrapping a one hour, 27-minute win to set up a blockbuster second-rounder with Karolina Muchova.

Earlier, Australian Open semifinalist Muchova broke serve five times breezing by Qiang Wang 6-1, 6-3 in 69 minutes.

The 23-year-old Osaka fought back from a set down to fight off Muchova at the Western & Southern Open played at the Billie Jean King National Tennis Center in New York City last August.

A smooth mover, Muchova showed her all-court skills testing Jennifer Brady in a thee-set Australian Open semifinal. Osaka says she's trying to make minor adjustments rather than major alterations applying her baseline aggression to red clay.

"I try to play my natural way," Osaka said. "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.

"Yeah, just of course you want to adapt to the clay and do things that are beneficial, but hopefully I don't change too much."


The 16th-seeded Sakkari pulled off one of the day's most dynamic comebacks rallying from a first-set shutout to top 2019 Roland Garros semifinalist Amanda Anisimova 0-6, 6-1, 6-4. Sakkari broke serve seven times setting up a second-round match vs. Anett Kontaveit.

Fresh off her run to the Stuttgart final, Aryna Sabalenka swept aside former world No. 2 Vera Zvonareva 6-1, 6-2.  It was Sabalenka's first career Madrid main-draw win as she improved to 19-6 on the season. Like Osaka, Sabalenka is seeking her first career clay crown winning all nine of her WTA titles on hard courts.




Daria Kasatkina showed stiff resilience rallying for a 4-6, 6-4, 7-6(1) triumph over Romanian qualifier Irina-Camelia Begu. Kasatkina will face the fifth-seeded Sabalenka in round two.

 

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