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Jelena Ostapenko vs Zhang Shuai WTA Rome tennis live: Ostapenko must be prepared for a challenge as she opens Internazionali BNL d’Italia campaign

Hannah Wilks in WTA Tour 15 May 2018
  • Jelena Ostapenko opens her Internazionali BNL d'Italia 2018 campaign against Zhang Shuai
  • Ostapenko vs Zhang Internazionali BNL d'Italia tennis is live from Rome on Tuesday at 7.30pm local/6.30pm BST
Jelena Ostapenko (Photo by Dennis Grombkowski/Getty Images)

The Internazionali BNL d’Italia is Jelena Ostapenko’s last chance to find form ahead of her French Open title defense – can she get off to a winning start against Zhang Shuai in Rome on Tuesday?

With her Roland Garros title defense looming, Jelena Ostapenko faces Zhang Shuai as she starts her campaign at the Internazionali BNL d’Italia in Rome.

There are four French Open champions in Jelena Ostapenko’s quarter of the draw at the Internazionali BNL d’Italia – 2010 winner Francesca Schiavone, 2012 and 2014 champion Maria Sharapova, 2016 winner Garbine Muguruza and the fifth seed herself, the 2017 champion. But that title probably sits far more uncomfortably on Ostapenko’s shoulders than anybody else’s right now. It’s been very nearly 12 months since Ostapenko, then a fairly unheralded teenager from Latvia ranked in the lower depths of the top 50, blasted her way to the French Open title and into a whole new stratosphere of expectation and pressure. Ostapenko seemingly took that achievement in her stride with a cheerful insouciance, but as time has gone on and the realities of being a top-10 player and major champion have started to sink in, the idea of having to try to back up that Roland Garros win might have started to assume stressful proportions.

Ostapenko definitely hasn’t had the best season so far, although whether that’s the result of that French Open title defense weighing on her or other factors – not least the somewhat feast-or-famine nature of her big-hitting game – is not clear. She won back-to-back matches only once in her first seven events of 2018, making the third round of the Australian Open only to lose out in a power battle to Anett Kontaveit. Then came her run to the Miami Open final, a fine achievement which saw her beat Petra Kvitova and Elina Svitolina before losing out to Sloane Stephens – but Ostapenko didn’t manage to bring that form to clay. True, she dusted Ekaterina Makarova and Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova in Fed Cup and made it look easy, but she went out in three sets to Karolina Pliskova – admittedly the eventual champion – in the quarterfinals in Stuttgart and lost 3-6, 3-6 to Irina-Camelia Begu in the very first round of Madrid. Begu is a quality opponent on clay, especially in Madrid, but Ostapenko should have at least taken the match to three sets. Her performance was underwhelming, and underwhelming in a way that doesn’t necessarily bode well for her at the Internazionali BNL d’Italia, especially when opening against a lower-ranked but tricky opponent like Zhang Shuai.

Ostapenko has played well in Rome before, making the round of 16 in 2016 and the second round as a qualifier in 2017 – curiously, she lost both times to Garbine Muguruza, a potential quarterfinal opponent for her this time if both can live up to their seeding. But to do that, Ostapenko must get past Zhang Shuai first.

World no. 27 Zhang is probably best known for her feats at the 2016 Australian Open, when, on the brink of retiring from the sport altogether after years of struggling for wins and battling injury, she qualified for the main draw and then beat Simona Halep and Madison Keys on her way to the quarterfinals. Her career revived, Zhang should go on to beat the likes of Caroline Wozniacki, Naomi Osaka and Halep (again) over the course of a season that saw her win two ITF titles and finish runner-up at the WTA 125k in Honolulu as well as making WTA quarterfinals in Beijing and semifinals in Tokyo, Seoul and Zhuhai. Ranked as high as world no. 23 at the end of 2016, Zhang couldn’t sustain that ranking in 2017 but didn’t drop too far, ending the season at world no. 36 after winning a WTA title in Guangzhou, ITF $100k titles in Astana and Tokyo and taking the title in Honolulu which had eluded her in 2016.

Zhang scored another upset at the Australian Open in 2018, beating US Open champion Sloane Stephens in the first round, but fell to Denisa Allertova in the second and back-to-back quarterfinals in Budapest and Acapulco were the best she had to show from her first quarter of the season. But things have picked up a bit for the Chinese player on clay – she made the semifinals in Prague, losing to eventual champion Petra Kvitova, and beat Osaka in Madrid before falling to Kristina Mladenovic.

Zhang opened her Internazionali BNL d’Italia campaign by beating the tricky Mihaela Buzarnescu, who played so well to make the final in Prague, and is now looking to make the third round in Rome for the first time since 2014, when the Chinese player beat Kvitova, Christina McHale and Lauren Davis before losing to Serena Williams in the quarterfinals.

This will be the first meeting between Ostapenko and Zhang – and I foresee trouble for the Latvian player. Zhang has some good wins on clay under her belt and has already won a match at the Foro Italico in 2018; she’s attuned to the conditions and I can see that her game could be a tricky one for Ostapenko to deal with if the Latvian isn’t at her best. Zhang is a great mover, she’s crafty and aggressive, and she could deal the fifth seed a confidence-damaging defeat ahead of Ostapenko’s French Open title defense.  

Ostapenko vs Zhang Internazionali BNL d’Italia tennis is live from Rome on Tuesday at 7.30pm local/6.30pm BST

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Jelena Ostapenko vs Zhang Shuai WTA Rome tennis live: Ostapenko must be prepared for a challenge as she opens Internazionali BNL d’Italia campaign

Zhang Shuai has upset top players before and Jelena Ostapenko must be wary as she begins her Internazionali BNL d’Italia campaign: WTA Rome tennis live from Rome

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