Italian Open preview: Simona has the smarts to bounce back in Rome

She was a beaten finalist in Madrid but two-time finalist Simona Halep can gain quick compensation in the Italian capital.

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With Roland Garros kicking off in a fortnight, the Italian Open is the last big tournament for players to showcase their clay court chops before Paris.

The shift from Madrid’s high altitude, quicker clay to Rome’s much slower surface will affect the chances of numerous players.

For example, while Roger Federer and Petra Kvitova have collected nine titles between them in the Spanish capital, neither player has triumphed at the Foro Italico. Federer has been runner-up four times while the Czech has only made the last eight.

If you want win Rome, you’ll need to survive a heap of gruelling rallies.

Simona Halep

In that spirit, there probably isn’t a more durable player on the WTA Tour than the World No. 3. It’s a quality Halep will require this week after losing Saturday’s final to Kiki Bertens in Madrid.

In 2017, the Romanian was victorious at the Caja Magica and finished runner-up the following week in Rome. Can she reverse that trick this time around? The Italian Open draw starts well for the 27-year-old but gets very tricky.

She should have too much for Marketa Vondrousova or Barbora Strycova in the second round. Halep will then be wary of a potential meeting with 2018 French Open quarter-finalist Dasha Kasatkina in the third round.

After that, the difficulty level ratchets up with Sloane Stephens or the returning Serena Williams likely opponents in the quarters, and Madrid champion Bertens in the semis.

As a two-time finalist in Rome, I have Halep as slight favourite but her path is treacherous.

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Kiki Bertens

She just won the biggest title of her career so why not back-to-back success for Bertens? In 2013, Serena Williams won both Madrid and Rome, the last woman to do so. It will be difficult for the new World No. 4 to replicate that feat but her form is good enough.

The 27-year-old tore through the Madrid draw, refusing to yield a set during victories over Halep, Petra Kvitova, Sloane Stephens and Jelena Ostapenko. Bertens is a premier clay courter. She moves well on the surface and is tactically astute. She also has a lot of firepower including a serve that’s produced 192 aces in 2019.

It’s hard to see Bertens failing to make the last eight in Rome. She will face a wildcard or qualifier to start. That will then be followed by a likely meeting with Aryna Sabalenka or Carla Suarez Navarro.

World No.1 Naomi Osaka will probably await her in the quarters, but expect the high flying Dutch woman to embrace that potential challenge.

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Anett Kontaveit

Madrid wasn’t a great outing for the Estonian as she fell in the first round to Aliaksandra Sasnovich. It was quite a come down from her runner-up showing in Stuttgart.

Kontaveit has a good draw in Rome and has a fine chance to get through to the business end of the tournament.

The 23-year-old will start against a qualifier or lucky loser and is projected to meet Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova (who she beat in Stuttgart) in the 2nd round.

Petra Kvitova in the third round would be a considerable obstacle but the Foro Italico is not the Czech’s favourite court. If Kontaveit can grind her way into the last eight, anything is possible.

Victoria Azarenka

When Serena Williams completed the Madrid/Rome double in 2013, Azarenka was her victim in the Italian Open final.

While the past couple of years have been difficult for the Belarusian, there has been a quiet uptick in form lately.

The 29-year-old knocked Karolina Pliskova out of Stuttgart and took Kontaveit to three sets before retiring with a twinge to the shoulder. Then in Madrid, the former world no.1 defeated Dasha Kasatkina in her opener and took Sloane Stephens to three sets in the following round.

In Rome, Azarenka finds herself in a quarter with defending champion Elina Svitolina and Pliskova. If she can beat Shuai Zhang in the first round, Azarenka will get a shot at Svitolina who is still recovering from a knee injury.

If Svitolina is as hampered here as she was during her first round defeat to Pauline Parmentier in Madrid, Azarenka can take advantage and open up that quarter of the draw.

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