Despite being a two-time grand slam champion at the age of 21, Naomi Osaka finds herself in unfamiliar territory at this year’s BNP Paribas Open in Indian Wells.
The world No.1 will be playing in her first WTA tournament as a defending champion. 12 months ago ranked 44th in the world, Osaka scored consecutive wins over Karolina Pliskova, Simona Halep and Daria Kasatkina in Indian Wells to claim her first silverware on the professional tour. Since then, she has grown from strength to strength to become Asia’s first ever world No.1 in tennis.
“Recently a lot of parents have been coming up to me and telling me that their kids look up to me, those words blew me away.” Osaka wrote on Twitter yesterday.
“I was honestly shocked and felt this huge responsibility because I remember how important role models are.
“I’m here at Indian Wells, I see all these kids that look so happy to see me they ask for picture and autographs….Honestly I wanted to cry because my heart feels so full in these moments and I realize it isn’t just about tennis, it’s about inspiring the next generation.” She added.
Whilst relishing the impact she is having on others, the Japanese player faces a tough battle to maintain her top position over the next two weeks. With 1000 points to defend, Osaka is one of five players that could end the Californian tournament as world No.1. In her section of the draw, she faces a potential second round clash with Kristina Mladenovic, who plays China’s Zheng Saisai in her opening match. A player she recently lost to in straight sets at the Dubai Tennis Championships. Also lurking in her section during the first week is Australian Open semi-finalist Danielle Collins and Caroline Wozniacki.
Osaka’s potential path to the title
Petra Kvitova was a win away from becoming No.1 for the first time in her career at the Australian Open. Losing to Osaka in the final. In order to claim the top position this time round, the Czech needs to reach at least the semi-finals. A tough ask for a player who has only reached the quarter-finals of the event in two out of eight attempts.
“I’m already happy with my season so far. This is the second month of the year, and yeah, I’m pretty happy with that.” Kvitova said following her exit from the Dubai Tennis Championships.
Kvitova faces a potentially dangerous journey in this year’s draw. Her opening match will be against either the formidable Venus Williams or Andrea Petkovic. The only consolation is that she will not play a player ranked no higher than 15th seed Julia Goerges until at least the quarter-finals, if she progresses that far.
— BNP Paribas Open (@BNPPARIBASOPEN) March 5, 2019
Former champion Halep has won more matches at Indian Wells (21) than any other Premier Mandatory tournament so far in her career. She will be hoping for another deep run in 2019. Last winning a title in Montreal back in August, the Romanian is required to reach the final this year if she wants to reclaim the No.1 spot. Something she hasn’t done since winning the title back in 2015.
Questions remain over how Halep will fair over the fortnight. Whilst she has no injury concerns (that are public knowledge), she admitted that her Achilles impacted her serving and she experienced cramping in her leg during her quarter-final loss to Belinda Bencic in Dubai.
— Simona Halep (@Simona_Halep) March 6, 2019
The last time a American woman other than Serena Williams topped the rankings was Lindsay Davenport back in 2006. Sloane Stephens has a shot at becoming the ninth player from her country to top the rankings, but is required to reach the final at least.
Her win-loss record at Indian Wells currently stands at 10-8 and she last reached the quarter-finals back in 2014. Although Stephens is known for finding her form whilst playing at the big events. Winning the Miami Open last year and reaching the final of the French Open. However, Stephens have struggled on the tour so far this year. Winning back-to-back matches in one out of four tournaments played.
“I’m not too sad about it. I’m just going to go back and work some more, practice some more and get ready for Indian Wells.” Stephens commented about her latest loss in Acapulco.
SUCCESS !! pic.twitter.com/XhlbxYzyLr
— Sloane Stephens (@SloaneStephens) 5 March 2019
Finally, Pliskova has the hardest task of dethroning Osaka from the top spot. Not only does she need results to go in her favour, Pliskova must win the title. Something that has never been achieved by a Czech player in the history of the tournament. The 26-year-old is already a two-time Indian Wells semi-finalist and has a 75% (15-5) winning rate in the tournament heading into this year. Her best record in a premier Mandatory event.
The women’s draw at the BNP Paribas Open will get underway on Wednesday. All of the 32 seeded players have a bye in the first round.
The No.1 scenarios
Note: data obtained via tennistonic.com
Pliskova And Konta Advance To Rome Final
Johanna Konta edged world n.4 Kiki Bertens while Karolina Pliskova scored a straight-set victory against Maria Sakkari
After a washout on Wednesday and a double duty day on Thursday, the Internazionali BNL d’Italia were bracing for another wet afternoon on Saturday. Eventually, the very cold spell of Italian spring that has so far marred the 2019 Italian Open decided to spare the Foro Italico on the first day of the final weekend and allowed the two women’s singles semifinals to take place with only one very short interruption.
In the first match, 28-year-old Brit Johanna Konta came back from one set down and only two points away from defeat to overcome Mutua Madrid Open champion and world n.4 Kiki Bertens 5-7, 7-5, 6-2. The Dutch woman seemed to be in control of the match after she swooped the first set winning the last three games in a row (from 4-5 to 7-5) imposing her offensive and defensive game over a nervous and tentative Konta, who also failed to consolidate an initial break in the second set by losing her serve for the third time in a row. However, as the match progressed Konta started shaking off her initial jitters and held her subsequent service game with authority. At 4-5 30-30, a shanked smash pinched the line and the following forehand volley winner sealed the 5-5, signing a progressive decline in Berten’s sharpness and aggressiveness. “I think everything was hard today to ignore – said Bertens in the post-match press conference – the court was really slippery, so it’s tough to move on. Especially I like it when it’s not so slippery so I can move a little bit better. With the wind, it was really tough. She played really smart with the dropshots. She did a good job in there. I was all the time getting myself together and trying to push for more energy. But, yeah, it was not there”.
At her first final on clay and at her first final in a Premier Five/Premier Mandatory tournament after her triumph in Miami in 2017, Konta describer her effort on court as a “continuous adjustment, a continuous openness to figure it out within the match. I stayed very open in trying to find a solution in each point […] after I lost the first set, I didn’t do much wrong. It was a very good set of tennis. Equally the second set, as well. There wasn’t anybody putting a bad foot out of line. In the third, I definitely felt that I was able to maintain my level a bit better than her. I think that gave me the upper hand in stringing some more points together”.
Konta will face in the final n.4 seed Karolina Pliskova, who during the late afternoon match defeated Greek qualifier Maria Sakkari 6-4, 6-4. Sakkari started the match extremely well taking an early 4-2 lead, but could not continue to produce the same level of tennis in the second part of the set and was surpassed by her better ranked opponent. “Your intensity just dropped by one percent – said Sakkari’s coach Tom Hill during an on-court coaching session at the end of the first set – that’s the only difference between the first games and the last in this first set”.
During the second set, Pliskova was always ahead in the score, and despite she was the player more under pressure on her serve during the first half of the set, she eventually managed to break her opponent to love on 5-4 closing the match after one hour, 27 minutes. “I’m super happy for this result because I don’t feel I have been playing my best tennis – said Pliskova after the match – coming into this week I felt I would probably win one match, possibly two, I’m very confident for Paris now”.
The head-to-head between Pliskova and Konta see the Czech having won four of the previous five matches at WTA level, plus further two at ITF level. The only win for Konta came in Beijing in 2016, when the Brit reached her first Premier Mandatory final.
Johanna Konta Reaches Biggest Semi-Final Since 2017
Johanna Konta advanced to her first semi-final in Rome by beating Vondrousova in three sets, while Pliskova beat Azarenka.
Johanna Konta will contest the biggest match of her career since Wimbledon 2017 when she takes on Kiki Bertens in the semi-final of the Italian Open.
The Brit, who is celebrating her 28th birthday today, looked in excellent form during her 6-3 3-6 6-1 victory over rising star Marketa Vondrousova and she fully deserves her place in the last four.
Konta’s win seems even more impressive when you consider the two players the Czech, 19, beat to reach the quarter-final stage: Simona Halep and Daria Kasatkina.
With those scalps under her belt, Vondrousova would surely have fancied her chances against the Brit. However, that confidence quickly eroded after the World No.42 controlled the opening set.
Konta made a great start. She hit a series of deep backhands which pushed the Czech back as she almost got an immediate break.
Although Vondrousova held on, the Brit then earned three more chances in game three. She took the second to move into a 2-1 lead.
Konta dominated her service games to maintain her advantage for the rest of the set, and then broke the Czech again in game nine to clinch it.
To Vondrousova’s credit, she fought back well in the second set and eventually won it 6-3. However, the Brit knew what to do in the decider. She stepped into the court and attacked anything short. This enabled her to win six games in a row and seal her spot in the semi-final.
Azarenka’s impressive run comes to an end
It has been a brilliant week in Rome for Victoria Azarenka, but her participation in the singles event is now over after a 6-7(5) 6-2 6-2 loss to Karolina Pliskova.
The Belarussian, 29, impressed during her three-set win over another top ten player – Elina Svitolina – in the second round, but she could not repeat the feat against the World No.7.
For Pliskova, the match against Azarenka represented a significant hurdle to negotiate. But she responded superbly to losing the first set by raising her game considerably to win the next two.
“Azarenka was playing good tennis today. She wasn’t missing much,” the Czech said in her press conference.
She continued, “It was a little bit windy, so I didn’t feel at my best in the first set. I don’t think my level was that bad, but I was too passive. To begin with, I wanted to kill myself after that set. Then I calmed down a bit and went for my shots a little bit more, which paid off.”
Pliskova’s reward will be a semi-final against either Maria Sakkari or Kristina Mladenovic. If it is the Greek, it will bring back memories of their encounter last year when the Czech famously lost her temper and damaged the umpire’s chair.
“I haven’t played Sakkari since Rome last year, so I think everybody is going to be waiting for this match – even me,” the World No.7 said. “The rematch has almost happened in a couple of tournaments recently, but she always lost before. I think she was scared to face me!”
Kiki Bertens receives a walkover into the semifinal, as Naomi Osaka withdraws from the quarter final due to a right hand injury
Last week’s Madrid Mutua Open champion Kiki Bertens overcame 2015 Rome finalist Carla Suarez Navarro 6-4 1-6 6-3 after 1 hour and 49 minutes to extend her winning streak to eight consecutive matches.
A rain wash-out on Wednesday forced Bertens to postpone her Rome campaign until Thursday and play two matches to advance to the quarter final.
Bertens overcame Amanda Anisimova 6-2 4-6 7-5 after being just two points from defeat in her first Thursday match before surviving another three-set battle against Carla Suarez Navarro.
Bertens went up a double break to take a 3-0 lead and held on her service games to seal the opening set on her fourth set point.
Suarez Navarro broke serve twice to clinch the second set 6-1 forcing the match to the third set.
Bertens broke twice in a row to race out to a 4-0 lead in the decisive set. Suarez Navarro pulled one of the two breaks back. Bertens held on her next service games to seal the win to secure her spot in the quarter final.
“It was only fight today that got me through. It wasn’t the best tennis, but sometimes that happens where you just have to find a way. Luckily I found it. I got to hit yesterday morning because I was first on, so at 9 AM, I warmed up until 9.30, when I thought that maybe we will be able to go on court, but it did not happen. I was on site from 8 AM to 6 PM, so it was a long day, but for everyone. This morning I saw the schedule for 10 AM, so the alarm went off at 6.30. Not my best morning. After the first match, I felt more mentally fatigued, but a long second match, you feel it physically”, said Bertens.
The Dutch player has received a walkover into the semifinal after her quarter final rival Naomi Osaka was forced to withdraw from the tournament due to a right hand injury. Osaka also had to pull out of the Stuttgart Open because of an abdominal problem, but she reached the biggest clay quarter final of her career in Madrid, where she served for the match, but she lost to Belinda Bencic 3-6 6-2 7-5.
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