Tennis

Osaka chills out, Barty races to adjust, Halep reminisces

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The Top Eight seeds at the Mutua Madrid Open met with the press ahead of the tournament, which is set to begin Thursday. From Naomi Osaka’s highly anticipated return to clay to Ashleigh Barty’s race against the clock, here are the best insights from the interview room. 

Naomi Osaka

The reigning Australian Open champion took a well-deserved break after the Miami Open, where her 23-match winning streak was snapped by Maria Sakkari in the quarterfinals. 

“I felt like I needed it because after Australia I had, like, one day of rest, then I immediately started working,” Osaka said.

“For me, I just felt like the Australian hardcourt swing, plus Miami, was kind of compressed for me. I didn’t really have time to see my family because I haven’t seen them since Christmas. I just wanted to spend time with them and chill out a little bit.

“I feel for me it’s exciting to go into the clay-court swing because I haven’t won a tournament on clay yet. Even though that does make me a bit excited, it also gives me a bit of stress because I really want to do well here.”

Osaka’s challenge for the clay season will be to balance her ambition with her expectations. The World No.2 told reporters that she is striking the ball well in practice, but the real test will come on the match court. 

“I do better when I don’t stress myself out and tell myself that I have to win a tournament,” Osaka said. “But it’s really hard to fight that feeling when you really want something.

“At the end of the day, I haven’t played a clay tournament in two years. I haven’t touched clay in two years either. I’m just going in here just trying to have fun and trying to build match play for the French Open.”

READ: As hard-court streak ends, Osaka embraces clay challenge

Simona Halep

A two-time champion in 2016 and 2017, the World No.3 has always been comfortable in Madrid. After making the semifinals in Stuttgart last week, Halep will begin her quest for a third title at the Caja Magica against Sara Sorribes Tormo in the first round. 

Halep was asked to reflect on what the Madrid event has meant to her career. 

“Well, I have received many wildcards in the past and I didn’t win a match when I got a wildcard,” Halep said. “Then the first time when I got in by myself, I did the final. So starting that moment I had confidence every time I came here that I can play good tennis, and I did. I have great results in the past, great memories.

“Also the conditions and everything that is here makes me happy. I feel like home. It’s a nice tournament. I was waiting actually two years to be back here.”

Karolina Pliskova

Don’t let the results fool you. Karolina Pliskova’s form has improved mightily since the start of the season. A finalist in Rome last year, the Czech said her last-minute decision to play the Porsche Tennis Grand Prix last week resulted in a big confidence boost. 

After tallying two good wins to advance to the quarterfinals, Pliskova served for the match against eventual champion Ashleigh Barty before losing 2-6, 6-1, 7-5. 

“I think it was the best decision because I had some good matches and I felt like finally I played the game, which I want to play,” Pliskova said. “Almost beating Ashleigh in the quarterfinals, that would be amazing. I just think my tennis was quite a good level there. I just hope to bring it from there here.”

Pliskova has a tough opening round against Coco Gauff. It will be her first meeting with the American teenager.

“For sure, she’s one of the young stars that is on the top right now,” Pliskova said. “She’s playing quite well. 

“I don’t know how is she on clay, to be honest. I don’t know how she played maybe last year. Definitely, a match to look forward to.”

Garbiñe Muguruza

The Spaniard says she is healing up well from the leg injury that forced her to retire in Charleston three weeks ago. After a busy start to the season that resulted in the best record on tour (21-6), Muguruza says she enjoyed the mental break of being home but did not spend any time reveling in her success.

“I think me and my team, I think we thought about it for like five minutes,” Muguruza said. “I’m not really thinking about that. Now, everything it’s coming so fast, big tournaments. Just looking forward for that.

“I didn’t actually drop the racquet for that long. I was trying to be prepared for clay and just recover my body. You don’t recover so much if you stay on the couch. You have to do things.”

“I know I started very well the year. Doesn’t matter. Just trying to start from zero now. Different surface, different tournament.”

– Garbiñe Muguruza

Muguruza is looking to translate her season success to home soil in Madrid, where she has yet to make it past the Round of 16. Seeded No.10, she’ll have a tough opening round against 2019 semifinalist Sloane Stephens.

“Every year, once you start a clay season, [you’re] just a little bit nervous,” Mugruuza said. “I love this surface. I want to do well, as always. Trying to not have too much expectation.

“I know I started very well the year. Doesn’t matter. Just trying to start from zero now. Different surface, different tournament. I’m not thinking too much. I’m just letting it go, just keep doing what I’ve been doing.”

Petra Kvitova

No one has won Madrid more than Petra Kvitova. The three-time champion in 2011, 2015, and 2018, the Czech was also the last champion ranked outside the Top 10 (2011). 

“I mean, it’s a huge tournament with the greatest players playing,” Kvitova said. “It’s really packed. Almost we are playing every day, or it was in the past. That was really tough, as well, because you just finished against a great opponent, and you another day played another one since the second round or third round.” 

Kvitova said she preferred the tournament to start on Saturday rather than Thursday, given the need to get to Madrid earlier than in years past, but the additional days off will be welcome.

“It was a little bit like the second week of the Grand Slam but really with great players. That will be very tough.”

Ashleigh Barty

The World No.1 comes into Madrid off her tour-leading third title at the Porsche Tennis Grand Prix and riding an 11-match winning streak on European red clay. Barty said her biggest challenge over the next few days is not so much to reset mentally or physically, but to simply make the adjustments from playing on indoor clay to outdoor clay at altitude. 

“Conditions are very different here to what they were in Stuttgart,” Barty said Wednesday. “So there will be an adjustment period throughout my first match and that’s okay. We just accept that and we just do the best that we can. 

“But we know that we have played in these conditions before at this tournament, so knowing that you’re comfortable is okay. You just have to allow yourself to play and to get on with it.”

Barty won Stuttgart on Sunday and was able to come onsite to practice for the first time Wednesday. She will face Shelby Rogers for the fourth time this season Thursday. 

“I think probably the biggest thing is the change of balls and the change of altitude. It certainly does travel through the air a lot quicker and for longer.

“I think even just hitting today, I was at our first practice session today hitting with Kiki [Bertens], there was an adjustment. It was a little bit rough to start off with, but you adapt, you adjust, you try and reign it in to what suits as quickly as possible.

“The courts here are extremely receptive to spin. They are bouncy. Can be quick when it’s warm. They can be slow if it’s rainy and cold. So I think it’s more just adapting to whatever conditions you’re playing on in that given day.”

My Performance: Ashleigh Barty talks about winning the 2021 Porsche Tennis Grand Prix

 

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