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Japan’s Naomi Osaka eyes the ball during her match against Slovakia’s Dominika Cibulkova at the Italian Open tennis tournament, in Rome, Thursday, May, 16, 2019. (AP Photo/Gregorio Borgia)
Japan’s Naomi Osaka eyes the ball during her match against Slovakia’s Dominika Cibulkova at the Italian Open tennis tournament, in Rome, Thursday, May, 16, 2019. (AP Photo/Gregorio Borgia)|Associated Press
Tennis

Italian Open Women’s Quarterfinals: Abrams picks Bertens v Osaka, Vondrousova v Konta, Pliskova v Azarenka, Mladenovic v Sakkari, 

Matches start at 6 am EDT.

Neal Abrams

Neal Abrams

Internazionali BNL d’Italia
Rome, Italy
Friday, May 17, 2019
Women’s Singles Quarterfinals

Halep is gone. Kvitova is gone. Serena and Venus are gone. Barty’s gone. Svitolina is gone. Stephens and Keys are gone. The women’s draw at the 2019 tournament in Rome has been hacked by upsets, withdrawals, retirements, and surprises. But the vibe at Foro Italico remains, and the women who are left are giving the rabid Italian fans all they could ask for. In the cold, damp, dark corners of the stadium, in which statues of old Roman warriors and Gods stand high above the grounds, the women, who are playing for about half the prize money of the men, are providing plenty of excitement, and some excellent tennis as we enter today’s appealing quarterfinals. Some big names might be out, but the fans who are lucky enough to hold tickets to today’s matches are in for another day of delight, as some new names face some favorite Tour veterans for a place in this weekend’s semis and finals and the chance to add their name to those champions who have hoisted the winner’s trophy in the past.

Kiki Bertens over Naomi Osaka
Naomi Osaka won this year’s Australian Open and planted herself atop the Women’s Rankings chart and became the target of all the other women on the Tour. At the beginning of the year I thought Petra Kvitova was playing the best of all the women, and as we rolled into March, I thought that newcomer, Canadian Bianca Andreescu picked up that mantle. But since Kvitova has cooled off and Andreescu has been sidelined by some nagging injuries, Kiki Bertens has taken over as the WTA player who is playing the best tennis. And that includes No. 1 ranked Osaka. Bertens’ title last week in Madrid more than proved my point as she rolled over Katerina Siniakova, Jelena Ostapenko, Anastasija Sevastova, Kvitova, Sloane Stephens, and Simona Halep to capture that very impressive championship. She has followed that up this week by toppling Amanda Anisimova, and Carla Suarez Navarro to set up this clash. Osaka has looked less than dominant lately, and I think she’s still processing how really good a player she is. It’s been said by many a top-ranked player that it is harder to stay there than it is to get there, and Osaka needs some more seasoning and polish in order to stay there for an extended period. I think Osaka is the best player in the world, physically, but I think her dominance has yet to come. This one belongs to Bertens.

Marketa Vondrousova over Johanna Konta
Vondrousova, the 19-year-old Czech, has loudly announced her presence to the other women on the WTA Tour this year. Her second round win over 3rd seeded Simona Halep, who I generally have thought was the best women’s player over the past two years, was, if not a revelation, was a beat-down that was noticed by not only the media and fans, but the other players. Konta came through a tough part of the draw that started out with both of the Williams sisters and Sloane Stephens (whom Konta beat 6-1 in the third), which should build her confidence greatly. But these two have played once before, in last year’s Indian Wells, when the Czech took that match in straight sets as an 18-year-old. She’s only gotten better. I like Vondrousova in a bit of a romp.

Karolina Pliskova over Vika Azarenka
Azarenka is finally showing signs that she is coming out of her self-imposed funk caused by pregnancy, birth, and then a maddening yearlong custody battle for her son Leo with ex-partner Billy McKeague. This prolonged absence from the Tour left Vika out of shape, emotionally exhausted, and not match tough. Although that seems to be ending, she’s still not back to where she was. After all, Vika was ranked No. 1 in the world. Although Azarenka is in the quarterfinals here, where she’s hitting the ball well and is competing well, she kinda stumbled into the quarters when Garbine Muguruza, herself a former Wimbledon champion, retired at 3-1 down in the third. So Azarenka still hasn’t won the tough matches she needs to win to show me that she can beat someone in the Top Five. Pliskova is not playing her best, but I don’t think she’ll need her best.

Kristina Mladenovic over Maria Sakkari
When Italian Fabio Fognini was dueling with Greece’s Stefanos Tsitsipas, with the statues of all the Roman Gods and gladiators standing at attention at the top of Foro Italico, with the fans from Rome screaming for their charge, I felt like I was studying the Classics of the Greeks and Romans, and I was witnessing some kind of fight between two gladiators. I got a little bit of that feeling when Greece’s Maria Sakkari was taking out Petra Kvitova in the Round of 16 yesterday. It was cold, it was damp, it was loud, and the fans enjoyed the competition. But her run should end now with this matchup with fellow-qualifier Kristina Mladenovic, the conqueror of Caroline Garcia, Belinda Bencic, and Ash Barty. Mladenovic, a 25-year-old from France, is playing her best tennis, and I think she’s going to make a mark in the rankings before the year is up. She’s big, she’s strong, and she hits a ton, and I think she’ll take out the Greek Goddess and move into the semis here in Rome.