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Japan’s Naomi Osaka returns the ball during her match against Slovakia’s Dominika Cibulkova during the Madrid Open tennis tournament, Sunday, May 5, 2019, in Madrid, Spain. (AP Photo/Andrea Comas)
Japan’s Naomi Osaka returns the ball during her match against Slovakia’s Dominika Cibulkova during the Madrid Open tennis tournament, Sunday, May 5, 2019, in Madrid, Spain. (AP Photo/Andrea Comas)|Associated Press
Tennis

WTA Tennis Wednesday: Abrams picks the Madrid Open Women’s Round of 16 with Osaka, Halep, Bencic, Stephens, Vekic, Bertens, Barty, Kvitova 

Matches start at 6 am EDT

Neal Abrams

Neal Abrams

2019 Mutua Madrid Open
Madrid, Spain
Wednesday, May 8, 2019
Women’s Round of 16

Simona Halep over Victoria Kuzmova
Tall men have taken over the ATP over the past 15 years, but the invasion and development of tall players hasn’t left the women behind. Twenty-year-old Slovakian, Victoria Kuzmova is 5’11” and she uses her height and reach to her advantage. She’s been on the WTA Tour for five years already and has 233 wins to her name, and will present world No. 3 Simona Halep a challenge on the red clay of Madrid. Halep has had two relatively easy matches here, and is primed and ready for Kuzmova. Kuzmova has beaten two very capable opponents in France’s 16th seeded Julia Georges and Spaniard Carla Suarez Navarro, both in straight sets, so she will be bringing her big game into this match, which should provide for contrasting styles, fun points, and a close match. But Halep’s defensive abilities are better than Kuzmova’s attacking style of play, so the Romanian should walk away a winner in this encounter.

Donna Vekic over Petra Martic
This Third Round match between these two tall Croatians will probably come down to a few points at the most important times. Vekic, an appealing 22-year-old who now lives in Monte Carlo, is currently ranked No. 24, and has been on the Tour since she was 15. She has reached the Third Round by beating the tough Qiang Wang and qualifier Kristyna Pliskova, the younger sister of 5th seeded Karolina Pliskova, and she hasn’t given up a set yet in Madrid. Martic, on the other hand, had a great first round win over homegirl Garbine Muguruza (who is 6’ herself) and then got a crucial walkover over 4th seeded Angie Kerber, the German who is playing some great tennis this year. That match with Kerber would have been a good indicator as to where Martic is with relation to her game, but since Kerber had to withdrawal when she rolled her right ankle, I really can’t judge how well Martic is playing. Clearly, her first round win was impressive, but I think Vekic is the better player, and Martic is ranked No. 36, which seems to confirm that. I’ll take the Croat who lives in Monte Carlo over the Croat who lives in The Bahamas.

Belinda Bencic over Kateryna Kozlova
Belinda Bencic is coming out of a part of the draw that was just packed. The new Swiss Miss (remember Martina Hingis, the original Swiss Miss?) took out the tough Belgian Alison Van Uytvanck, who has an aggressive, appealing style of play, and then eked out a win over wild card Svetlana Kuznetsova 7-6, 2-6, 6-3. Kuzzy, a former U.S. Open, French Open and Madrid champion, had beaten the hard-hitting Warrior Princess, Aryna Sabalenka, 5 and 4, in the first round, and is playing as well as a 33-year-old who has been on the Tour for 19 years can possibly play. Humorously, the veteran from Moscow has fully embraced Capitalism by pocketing over $24.5 million over her career. Isn’t it funny how the mighty dollar serves to cushion free-market-enterprise for those behind the former Iron Curtain? But getting back to the matter at hand, Kozlova, a qualifier, went through Shuai Zhang and 5th seeded Karolina Pliskova (she, who beat Serena Williams at the 2019 Australian Open) to reach this match, after besting Ekaterina Alexandrova and Aliona Bolsova in the qualies. Although Kozlova is on a roll, Bencic has a mature, solid game that I expect will be better than Kozlova’s. I’m surprised that Kozlova is ranked only 85th after playing professionally ten years, but I’m convinced that the 25-year-old Ukrainian is only now coming into her own, and we’ll hear more from her as she continues to compete.

Naomi Osaka over Aliaksandra Sasno
Now that Naomi Osaka is the No. 1 ranked woman in the world she’s getting to feel what it’s like to have everyone gunning for her. For a 20-year-old I’d say she’s handling the added pressure pretty well, and better than expected. She’s not polished enough a player yet to win every match, but who is? Still, she goes into these big tournaments as the top seed and the favorite, and to me, she’s clearly the best women’s player in the world. Here against Aliaksandra Sasno, a 25-year-old Belarussian, she should do her best to get off the court as quickly as possible and not waste any energy. The last time they met, in the 2018 U.S. Open, Osaka won 0 and 0, so I don’t really expect a challenge from Sasno.

Ash Barty over Yulia Putintseva
The jury is still out as to how effective a clay court player Ash Barty is. She’s clearly a wonderful, gifted athlete and a terrific tennis player, but how well her skills translate on to the slow court game remains to be seen. She is now in the Top Ten, at No. 9, and expected to win matches like this, but the real question is how dominant she can be. Barty beat American Danielle Collins in a match of oddly lopsided sets, 6-1, 1-6, 6-1, and it’s hard to read much into that, although a win is a win. Putintseva got two wins over journeymen Irina-Camelia Begu and Pauline Parmentier, neither of whom is terribly impressive, yet Putintseva got pushed by Parmentier 6-4, 4-6, 6-3. I suspect that this match should go Barty’s way early, and how she plays will determine a lot about the rest of her week here in Madrid.

Sloane Stephens over Saisai Zheng
Like many on the Men’s side, Sloane Stephens is an enigma to me. When playing at her peak, she not only is a pleasure to watch, but she is clearly one of the best and most talented players on the WTA Tour. Yet she rarely plays at her best, and when she’s mediocre, it’s sometimes criminal what she puts forth on the court. I haven’t gotten to see much of her play this week, but she came through in a nice three setter against Vika Azarenka in the Second Round, which seems to indicate that she’s got some game right now. If she does, she should cruise over Zheng, like she did when they played last year in Beijing 6-1, 6-3. Zheng had an easy road to the Third Round by beating compatriot Yafan Wang, who she totally owns with a 4-0 record against now, and then squeaking by Alize Cornet 6-4 in the third after Cornet got basically a walkover from Caroline Wozniacki. Stephens will dictate this match. If she’s on, it won’t last long. If she’s not, there’s gonna be a battle on Court 3.

Petra Kvitova over Caroline Garcia
These two have the pleasure of playing on center court here, what they call “Manolo Santana” after the great Spaniard of the 1960’s. Those who stay until this final Women’s match are likely to see a really entertaining exhibition between two players who are accomplished and very competitive. This will be the first clay court match between these two veterans who have played seven previous times, all on hard courts, with Kvitova, the 2nd seed here, having taken four of the seven. It seems that Garcia, the 25-year-old Frenchwoman, has a style and game that gives Kvitova trouble, and it should be interesting how it plays out on the clay. Kvitova earlier in the year was playing what I thought was the best tennis of her career. But as most fans know, you can’t play in the zone forever, and it’s a rough comedown from those heights. That’s not to say that Kvitova is playing poorly. It’s just that I expect this to be a dogfight.

Kiki Bertens versus Anastasija Sevastova PICK EM
Sevastova has been on the Tour since 2006 and Bertens has been playing professionally since 2009, and as unlikely as it sounds, this will be the third time they’ve played, all in Madrid! It sounds statistically unlikely, but it’s true. When they tangled in the quarters in 2017 Sevastova came away with a 6-3, 6-3 win, and when they played last year Bertens triumphed 6-1, 6-4. Now in 2019 I just can’t make a pick. I think this match could be very close, but Sevastova could consider herself lucky to just be here. In her first round match she lost the first set to Kristen Flipkens 6-0, and it appeared the Belgian would run away with a victory. Instead, the Latvian regrouped and pulled out a 0-6, 6-3, 6-2 win to move forward. Bertens, from The Netherlands, has had a more conventional path to this Third Round encounter with two straight set victories, and appears ready for battle. I think the real question is who will jump out first. To me, the player who wins the first set will win this match.