ROME: Victoria Azarenka of Belarus plays a backhand to Venus Williams of the USA on day three of the Women's Italian Open at Foro Italico in Rome, Italy. - AFP

ROME: Top seed Simona Halep overcame a couple of hiccups in her first match at the Italian Open in Rome to beat wildcard Jasmine Paolini 6-3 6-4 and move into the third round on Wednesday. The 28-year-old Wimbledon champion has only lost twice this year but found herself a break down in both sets before she recovered to seal her first victory since winning the Prague Open a month ago.

World number two Halep, who had skipped the US Open due to COVID-19 concerns and opted to stay in Europe and practice on the claycourts ahead of the French Open, looked sluggish at the Foro Italico with 14 winners offset by 15 unforced errors. "I was a little bit tight at the beginning, it was tough to get a rhythm in the whole match," Halep told reporters.

"It's always tough in the first match of the tournament and she played really well. I felt like I played very well when needed." Halep had received a bye into the second round but was far from her best on serve and was broken five times in the match. However, Paolini was also let down by seven double faults in the match and Halep capitalised on her second serve, winning 15 of 17 points to take the opening set.

She switched gears late in the second to take the game away from the Italian, who was playing a top-10 player for only the second time in her career, as Halep finished the match after converting her eighth break point. Second seed Karolina Pliskova started her title defence with a 6-3 6-3 win over Barbora Strycova, converting four break points and smashing 26 winners past her Czech compatriot.

Meanwhile, Belarusian Victoria Azarenka beat American Venus Williams 7-6(7) 6-2 to set up a second-round clash with third seed Sofia Kenin. After winning the Western & Southern Open last month and losing the U.S. Open final in New York over the weekend, Azarenka had no problems switching from hardcourt to clay in just four days.

"Different surface was definitely challenging but I feel like I adapted very well," Azarenka said. "I felt that this was a great match for me to figure it out, the first match on clay. Earlier, In his first match in over six months, Rafael Nadal swept aside fellow Spaniard Pablo Carreno Busta on Wednesday to reach the third round of the Italian Open.

The nine-time Rome winner came through 6-1, 6-1 against 18th-ranked Carreno Busta, a recent semi-finalist at the US Open. "It was a perfect start for me. It was solid, good shots on the forehand and backhand. I didn't expect to play that well," Nadal said. "Maybe Pablo was a little bit tired from a great tournament there in New York, but thinking about myself, I played a very solid match and very serious and doing a lot of things very well. So very happy."

The world number two has not played since winning in Acapulco at the end of February, opting to skip the US hard court tour because of coronavirus concerns.
The 34-year-old will next play either Canadian Milos Raonic or Serb Dusan Lajovic for a place in the quarter-finals. Nadal, a 12-time French Open winner, is the second seed behind world number one Novak Djokovic in the tune-up for the final Grand Slam of the season at Roland Garros on September 27.

But he does not believe the brutal switch from hard to clay surface will be a disadvantage for his rivals at the French Open. "If Roland Garros is this week, maybe yes, (but) Roland Garros is two weeks away so I don't think so." "Of course I have to improve things. But the things that I have to improve, the only way to improve is to keep practicing with the right attitude and intensity and to spend hours on the competition matches.
"And today have been a positive start for me.

"This year, of course situation is different, but I gonna keep trying my best," added the Spaniard who did not pick up a racquet during lockdown. "Then I started to practice on hard for a while. And then I switch to clay. "But I really do not remember when, honestly, but quite a lot. But I have been practicing on and off not every single day since the beginning. "I had to come back very slow. "After two months without touching a racquet, I needed to make things step by step, trying to avoid injuries.

"And of course after the lockdown, the body had some issues, too. Just trying to do the things the best way possible to come back when I felt ready." Nadal, who has a 62-6 record in Rome, is attempting to capture a record 36th ATP Masters 1000 title, which would break a tie with four-time former Rome champion Djokovic. - Agencies