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Simona Halep vs Naomi Osaka WTA Rome tennis live: Halep must be sharp to avoid shock exit from the Internazionali BNL d’Italia at the hands of Osaka

Hannah Wilks in WTA Tour 15 May 2018
  • Simona Halep takes on Naomi Osaka in the second round of the Internazionali BNL d'Italia on Wednesday
  • Halep vs Osaka Internazionali BNL d'Italia tennis is live from Rome on Wednesday at 11am local/10am BST
Simona Halep (Photo by Gareth Copley/Getty Images)

With her world no. 1 ranking under threat, Simona Halep starts her Internazionali BNL d’Italia campaign against the dangerous Naomi Osaka in Rome on Wednesday.

Simona Halep has to defend her world no. 1 ranking at the Internazionali BNL d’Italia this week if she wants to be the top seed at the French Open – but she could be in for a tough time against her very first opponent, Indian Wells champion Naomi Osaka.

Runner-up at the Foro Italico last year when she rolled her ankle during the final against Elina Svitolina, Halep is currently on 7,270 points with Australian Open champion Caroline Wozniacki close behind on 6,845. The Dane did not play Rome last year and hence is not defending any points. In order to preserve her no. 1 ranking – and henceforth to be the top seed at Roland Garros – Halep must reach at least the quarterfinals in Rome, and she must go one round further than Wozniacki.

That would generally look like a pretty safe bet given the players’ respective level of comfort on clay and in Rome. In addition to reaching the final in 2017, Halep also made the semifinals at the Foro Italico in 2013 and 2015. Wozniacki made the semifinals in 2011, but lost her opening match on her last three appearances and has a mixed relationship with clay in general.

Halep is not only looking to protect her world no. 1 ranking – she’s also generally looking for her first big result of the clay season heading into the French Open, where the pressure on the two-time finalist and presumptive top seed will be immense, not least that which is self-imposed at the tournament which still looks like her best chance by far of capturing a major title. Last year Halep was the best player of the clay season, reaching the semifinals in Stuttgart, finishing runner-up in Rome and at the French Open and capturing her second straight title at the Mutua Madrid Open. So far in 2018, she’s failed to make it past the quarterfinals in Stuttgart and Madrid. And perhaps the most worrying aspect of those defeats is that in both cases she was simply blown off the courts by big servers and big hitters for whose power she had no answer: Defeated 4-6, 1-6 by Coco Vandeweghe in Stuttgart and 4-6, 3-6 by Karolina Pliskova in Madrid.

Conditions in Stuttgart and Madrid do tend to be more favourable to big servers and big hitters than conditions in Rome and at the French Open, but it’s still a worrying reminder that there’s not too much that Halep, good as she is, can do when she’s up against a more explosive player who is not to be nudged off their game. Under the circumstances, then, there is quite a lot on the line as Halep starts her Internazionali BNL d’Italia against a big-serving, explosive player with nothing to lose against her – Naomi Osaka, who has already recorded one impressive victory in Rome.

Up to world no. 21 after winning the biggest title of her young career at Indian Wells in March, when she beat Maria Sharapova, Pliskova, Halep herself and Daria Kasatkina to win the Premier Mandatory-level BNP Paribas Open, Osaka – still just 20 years old – continues to establish herself as a growing force on the WTA Tour. But clay is not necessarily where you would look for her to make an impact, although she did make the third round of the French Open in 2016, beating future champion Jelena Ostapenko in the first round – Osaka herself is the first to admit that she isn’t completely comfortable on the surface yet. 

‘Sometimes I stick my foot out to slide, and I just fall,’ Osaka said in Rome on Monday. ‘Little things like that. There's different clay courts, so one can be faster and one can be slower. I think just finding out how to figure out the difference between them.

‘On clay, sometimes it's like - like there could be a hole or whatever, and then other times, you could just stop suddenly. On hard, I know the distance I'm gonna slide; but on clay, I'm not really sure.’

On the other hand, Osaka looked extremely comfortable during her first-round match at the Foro Italico – a 6-0, 6-3 73-minute demolition of Victoria Azarenka, in which she became just the eighth player to hand the former world no. 1 a bagel set during her entire career. Azarenka is only just returning to competition after the travails of the past two years and was definitely struggling with her game on Monday, double-faulting and making unforced errors. But Osaka was on absolutely sizzling form, raining down winners in the first set with little regard for a supposedly slower surface, and although her level dropped in the second set, it was still more than good enough to secure the win against an extremely tough opponent.

‘My original goal was to do better than I did last time,’ Osaka said, referring to her only previous encounter with Azarenka, a 1-6, 1-6 defeat to the Belarusian at the Australian Open in 2016. ‘I wasn't really thinking much after I won the first game. I just really tried to keep the momentum going, and I was really glad that I was able to finish it at that score line.

‘It didn't really feel like it was as easy as I think people think it was. I'm just really glad I was able to play an opponent like her. Just to even have a chance I think is really great, and I think it was fun.’

Halep owns a fairly dominant 3-1 record against Osaka, but it isn’t quite as one-sided as all that. For one thing, two of Halep’s wins against Osaka, including their only meeting on clay courts, have gone to three sets. For another, Osaka completely dominated their last match, beating Halep 6-3, 6-0 in the semifinals of Indian Wells this March. That was an unusually poor performance from an out of sorts Halep, but it did point to how utterly Osaka is capable of dictating the course of events against the world no. 1. The change of surface is a great leveler, considering Halep’s level of skill and comfort and experience on clay, but the tantalizing possibility still remains that an on-fire Osaka could deliver a performance of power and precision and rip the match out of Halep’s hands – a possibility that Halep will have to be very, very sharp to minimize.

‘I had the chance to play her in the French Open one time,’ Osaka said. ‘She played really good and I think that I played good too that day. And I practiced with her in Madrid, actually.

‘I feel like she moves really amazing on clay. And just see how that's gonna go 'cause it's definitely not like Indian Wells, this surface. I just think it'll be very interesting.’

Halep vs Osaka Internazionali BNL d’Italia tennis is live from Rome on Wednesday at 11am local/10am BST

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Simona Halep vs Naomi Osaka WTA Rome tennis live: Halep must be sharp to avoid shock exit from the Internazionali BNL d’Italia at the hands of Osaka

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