MADRID • Naomi Osaka eased concerns about her form and fitness by coming through a tricky opening match against Dominika Cibulkova at the Madrid Open yesterday.
The Japanese has struggled since splitting with coach Sascha Bajin in February, while an abdominal injury forced her to withdraw in Stuttgart eight days ago, raising doubts about her challenge at the French Open later this month.
But there was little sign of physical problems during a testing 6-2, 7-6 (8-6) victory against one of the tour's toughest competitors, even if the Slovak is also enduring a difficult start to the year.
Afterwards, Osaka claimed she felt good, adding: "I don't have much pain in my abs, so that's always a good sign."
She looked set for a more comfortable passage after a dominant opening set, in which she won five consecutive games.
Despite being stretched in the second set, Osaka, who whacked her racket against her foot when pegged back to 5-5 and was then taken to a tie-break, hit 43 winners to her opponent's 23.
She will face Spain's Sara Sorribes Tormo in the next round.
While Osaka's success - two consecutive Grand Slam titles at the US and Australian Opens with Bajin - has yet to translate to the red dirt, the 21-year-old would have felt encouraged by her first career semi-final on clay in Stuttgart after recently admitting "a rough few months" had left her depressed.
Separately, Bajin revealed the challenge of helping Kristina Mladenovic regain her top-10 status is one of the main reasons he has decided to coach her.
Following a surprise split with Osaka that ended a 13-month partnership, the German is back in the players' box as the mentor of the Frenchwoman, who has slipped to world No. 64.
The 34-year-old, who spent eight years with Serena Williams as her hitting partner and has worked with the likes of Victoria Azarenka, Sloane Stephens and Caroline Wozniacki, feels Mladenovic is "the one I could help the most out of her current situation".
Bajin said: "If after being eight years with Serena I don't know how to help someone with a backhand, then all hope should be lost for me."
Mladenovic, who beat Czech Barbora Strycova 6-3, 6-1 in Madrid yesterday, has been without a coach for the last 21/2 years. She peaked at No. 10 at the end of 2017 but finished last year ranked 44th, before starting this year with four consecutive defeats in the singles.
ATP MADRID OPEN
Day 1: StarHub Ch201, 6pm