Naomi Osaka on Sunday eased concerns about her form and fitness by coming through a tricky first round against Dominika Cibulkova at the Madrid Open, declaring she is “more comfortable” on clay courts than in the past.
Osaka has struggled since splitting with her coach Sascha Bajin in February, while an abdominal injury forced her to withdraw in Stuttgart eight days ago, creating doubts about her challenge at the French Open later this month.
However, there was little sign of physical problems during a testing 6-2, 7-6 (8/6) victory over Cibulkova and afterward Osaka said: “I feel good. I don’t have much pain in my abs so that’s always a good sign.”
The Japanese world No. 1 next faces Spain’s Sara Sorribes Tormo.
Osaka looked set for a more comfortable passage after a dominant opening set, but she was stretched by the battling Cibulkova in the second.
By the end, Osaka had hit 43 winners and eight aces, while world No. 33 Cibulkova conjured up 23 winners.
“I was also kind of thinking, like, there is nowhere else I’d rather be and honestly I train for these moments, so I have to give it 100 percent,” Osaka said after her first main-draw win in Madrid. “I feel like there’s an adjustment period for me on clay and it took a few years, but now I’m more comfortable. I’m not sure if it’s because I had a really long training block before I came to start the season, but yeah, it feels good.”
Osaka’s pair of Grand Slam successes have come on hard courts, at the US Open and Australian Open, but she is yet to find her best on clay.
If the abdominal injury has healed, Osaka can feel encouraged by her performance against Cibulkova, one of the WTA Tour’s gutsiest competitors, even if the Slovakian is enduring a difficult start to the season.
Meanwhile, French Open champion and two-time Madrid winner Simona Halep brushed past Russian qualifier Margarita Gasparyan 6-0, 6-4.
“It was a good match, even if the first set was fast. The second one was tougher and I feel happy that I could win this match,” third seed Halep said.
Former world No. 1 Caroline Woznacki’s Madrid Open lasted just minutes when she retired at 0-3 down to France’s Alize Cornet suffering with a back injury.
Wozniacki, the Australian Open champion last year, has been battling rheumatoid arthritis.
“I don’t consider it like a real win over Caroline,” Cornet said.
Fourth seed Karolina Pliskova saved four match points to see off highly rated Ukrainian teenager Dayana Yastremska 5-7, 7-6 (7/5), 6-3.
Unseeded Pauline Parmentier of France defeated Ukrainian sixth seed Elina Svitolina, who had been struggling with a knee injury, 6-4, 7-6 (8/6).
American 13th seed Madison Keys was also a surprise first-round loser, going down 3-6, 6-4, 6-1 to Sorana Cirstea of Romania.
However, there were no such problems for former US Open champion Sloane Stephens, as the eighth seed defeated Polona Hercog of Slovenia 6-2, 7-6 (7/4).
Stephens, who announced her engagement to US soccer international Jozy Altidore last week, goes on to face former world No. 1 Victoria Azarenka.
Only two ATP Tour matches were played on Sunday.
Australia’s Nick Kyrgios suffered a 7-6 (7/4), 6-4 defeat to Germany’s Jan-Lennard Struff, a quarter-finalist in Barcelona last month.
Felix Auger-Aliassime, just 18, won the all-Canadian battle with Denis Shapovalov 6-2, 7-6 (9/7) to set up a second-round clash against world No. 2 Rafael Nadal.
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