Looking forward to this one… Simona Halep faces a tricky opener as she will play Naomi Osaka in the second round of the Miami Open on Friday.
Osaka hadn’t lost her first match at any tournament in 2017 heading into Miami and she kept that trend going with a first round win over Kristina Kucova, 6-2 6-3 in 73 minutes. Osaka’s serve was firing from the start but her groundstrokes took some time to warm up with both players offering up plenty of errors. Osaka soon found her range, backing off a little to keep more balls in play but still dictating with depth. The Japanese player rolled through the first set, failing to serve it out at 5-1, but breaking for the set with an aggressive return game.
Kucova hadn’t played since the Australian Open and the rust showed early on with a constant stream of errors into the net. Kucova, who was sporting strapping on both her knee and shoulder, made things much more competitive in the second set as the rallies lengthened. Osaka nearly let slip a *40-0 lead at *4-2 and was forced to save a break point – she held with the back-behind winner, a shot that she used very effectively, and later successfully served out the match to 30.
Halep had a bye into the second round of Miami and will be eager for matches having spent a month away from the tour due to a persistent knee injury. Halep returned in Indian Wells where she won her first match against Donna Vekic before bowing out to an in-form, Kristina Mladenovic in straight sets, 3-6 3-6. The match was much closer than the scoreline suggested as Halep went three out of 22 on break points. The key though, from a changeover chat with Darren Cahill, was coming through unscathed with the knee. From sightings on the practice court in Miami and quotes from all-access hour, it seems like the knee is bearing up.
Head-to-head record: In their only previous match, Halep came from a set down to defeat Osaka at the French Open, 4-6 6-2 6-3. This match was the first time in 2016 when the Romanian player won from a set down and it sparked a run of five straight three setters where Halep rallied from a set down to prevail.
Interesting stat: Osaka’s three losses in 2017 (Konta, McHale and Keys) have all come against higher ranked opposition. The Japanese player is becoming more consistent on tour and she’s winning the matches that you’d expect her to win.
Final thoughts: I think that playing Osaka before will be helpful for Halep as she’ll know what to expect in terms of the power and depth coming off the serve and groundstrokes from the Japanese player. It will be a tough match for Halep considering she hasn’t played much tennis of late and isn’t tuned to playing matches, as was apparent with her break point conversions against Mladenovic in Indian Wells. However, I think she actually played OK against the Frenchwoman.
The conditions in Miami and slow court should favour Halep and Osaka will face a demanding challenge to find the balance between aggression and precision. Osaka has had a consistent year but, up till now, has yet to have a big win and big run at a tournament – this match against Halep presents a good opportunity for the Japanese player. For Halep, the knee remains priority number one but the signs are at least positive that she can build some momentum before the clay court season.