Day three of the Internazionali BNL d'Italia saw eight second round matches played with top seed Simona Halep, second seed Karolina Pliskova and fourth seed Elina Svitolina move on while sixth seed Belinda Bencic won just four games in a lopsided upset loss to Danka Kovinic.
Halep, Svitolina fend off tough challenges, Pliskova has easy time in second round victories
Playing for the first time since winning in Prague, Halep had a relatively comfortable victory over Jasmine Paolini by a 6-3, 6-4 score. After falling behind an early break, the Romanian won six of the final seven games to take the opening set.
Again Paolini held the early advantage with another quick break to start out the second set, but struggled on her own serve and six consecutive breaks ensued with Halep taking the last of those to improve her record to 16-2 on the year.
"It was a little bit tight at the beginning", she said. "Actually, the whole match it was a little bit difficult to get the rhythm and to get relaxed. But the first match of the tournament is always tough and she played really well.
"Her forehand was strong but so was the backhand. It was tough to find out what to do because we had never played before. But i'm happy I could win the match. It was a tough one. I felt like when I needed to, I played very well.
"And mentally I was strong. I didn't give up at all. Also, I didn't get very upset on court, and i'm trying to improve in that direction more and more. That was a big plus."
Defending champion Pliskova knocked off countrywoman Barbora Strycova 6-3, 6-3, firing off 26 winners in the 75-minute contest. Breaking in the fifth game of the first set, the second seed took a 3-2 lead and broke again to clinch the set.
Gaining the initial break in the second set gave Pliskova a 4-2 edge, but Strycova broke back only to see the world number three re-break and close out the match a game later to progress to the third round.
Following the match, she stated "it was not an easy job, but I thought I played quite good today. I was feeling the ball, I was serving quite well, and in the important moments, I just went for it. So it paid off.
"I like it here and ever since I changed my feelings about Rome last year I think the conditions can be quite good [for me]. I thought the court was quite fast... and because it's so hot now, even more than in April, when the tournament normally is, I think it can be good for me."
Svitolina, a two-time champion in Rome, is playing in her first tournament since the tour restarted and she defeated a 6-3, 7-6 (4) victory over Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova. The Ukrainian saved seven of ten break points in the one hour, 45 minute clash.
Breaking in the sixth game, Svitolina charged ahead 4-2 and came from 0-30 down on serve to close out the first set only to see Pavlyuchenkova claim a 2-0 lead in the second set. The fourth seed broke in the fifth game, only to see the Russian break again for a 4-2 lead.
The back-and-forth set then went Svitolina's way as she served for the match at 5-4, again Pavlyuchenkova breaking and eventually the set went to a tiebreaker. The Ukrainian won three of the last four points to post the win and advance to round three.
"I was very happy that I was on the court and able to play", she told the media. "I played a good match, I think Anastasia was fighting really good, so I had to produce and finish really strong.
"For sure, it was not easy, I had the chances to close the match earlier in the second set. It was important for me to re-focus and fight, and to finish it in two sets is really great."
Kovinic, Azarenka, Yastremska among other winners
World number 86 Kovinic recorded the best win of her career, routing Bencic 6-3, 6-1. From 3-3 in the first set, the Montenegrin took nine of the final ten games to post the stunning victory in just 71 minutes.
Kovinic played a clean match, committing just 11 unforced errors as compared to 25 for Bencic to reach the round of 16 in Rome for the first time.
"She's a great player and I expected a big battle today, but I came through the qualies and I feel confident in myself", the qualifier stated. "I think that I had a little bit of an advantage on the court because I played a few matches here on these courts, and she's just coming to restart the season.
"I was feeling good even at the US Open. I lost in the second round where it was a good match against [Magda] Linette... I started feeling my game and getting my confidence back on the court. That just increased when we returned to Europe when I played in Istanbul. I had great matches there also.
"I'm pleased with my game and feel good on the court."
Azarenka produced 22 winners and six service breaks to knock out Williams 7-6 (7), 6-2. The Belarusian jumped out to a 3-0 lead, watched as the American roared back to take six of the next eight games and broke when Williams served for the set at 6-5.
Again getting off to a quick start with a 5-2 lead, Azarenka again saw Williams claw back and the breaker went back-and-forth until the world number 14 clinched the set when the American missed on a forehand and she ran away with the second set to close out the contest.
"Different surface was definitely challenging, but I feel like I adapted very well", she said. "I knew it wasn't going to be easy, I knew I wasn't going to play a perfect game today, but it was all about trying to find the right intention of what to do today. I think it worked out okay.
"I felt this was a great match for me to figure it out, the first match on clay. Venus played a really good match, so it was good to see her also adapting on clay, changing and trying different shots. So i'm pretty happy.
"I feel like I started pretty well, I felt like [Williams] was trying to be really aggressive and changing up some pace. She was getting in a better rhythm and I needed to find my game, and I thought that the longer I played, the better I felt the rhythm."
Yastremska, Rybakina, Mertens, Blinkova also advance
In a match that lasted two hours, 15 minutes, Yastremska emerged with a 4-6, 7-6 (3), 6-4 victory over Anisimova to advance to a third round matchup with Halep while 10th seed Elena Rybakina edged Marie Bouzkova 7-5, 7-6 (3).
11th seed Elise Mertens cruised past Magda Linette 6-2, 6-4 to set up a third round meeting with Kovinic while Anna Blinkova escaped against Aliona Bolsova 4-6, 6-1, 7-6 (4) and will next face Pliskova.