Naomi Osaka wants go easy on herself entering clay season

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MADRID — Former No. 1 Naomi Osaka enters the clay-court season with the goal of not being too hard on herself.

Osaka made the final in Miami last month and will be playing as a wild-card entry when the Madrid Open begins.

“I’m trying to embrace my mistakes compared to the previous years as well, so I’m not that hard on myself,” she said. “If I make a mistake or if I don’t move up to the ball fast enough – because I find on clay you actually have to move much more – but if I do stuff like that I just tell myself not to be mad.”

Osaka withdrew from the French Open last year and took a break from competition after saying she “suffered long bouts of depression” and experienced “huge waves of anxiety” before speaking to the media. The four-time Grand Slam champion has openly talked about working on her mental health since winning the 2018 U.S. Open over Serena Williams. She left last year’s U.S. Open in tears and was brought to tears again by a comment from a spectator at Indian Wells earlier this year.

“I’m still a student so I should try to keep learning,” she said ahead of her debut in Madrid.

Osaka said she hoped to learn from some of the clay-court specialists who are playing in Madrid, including Rafael Nadal and the red-hot Carlos Alcaraz.

“Honestly. I’ve been wanting to watch the really good clay-court players practice because I feel like I’m the type of person that learns really fast if I see it up close, and honestly it’s a bit of a waste to have all these really good professional tennis players and not watch them,” the 24-year-old Japanese player said. “I’ve kind of wanted to see Alcaraz, so it’d be cool to watch everyone practice.”

Osaka said she “stole one of the things” that Nadal did and was practicing it, without elaborating.

“It’ll either go really good or really bad. There’s like no in between,” she said. “But I think as I’ve been doing it, it’s been going pretty well.”

Osaka took two weeks off after playing in Miami and said she “changed a couple of things” in her game to prepare for the clay season.

“I think you guys will be able to tell when I play. I don’t want to spoil the surprise,” she said. “I would say I did change a couple of things to suit myself more for clay.”

Osaka said she has set a goal of reaching the semifinals either in Madrid or in Rome.

“I’m trying to take it one tournament at a time,” she said. “Of course winning matches and leading up into the French, I want to get to the semis of either here or Rome, hopefully win. But I’m going to set a little goal first.”

Osaka’s first match in Madrid will be against a qualifier. If she wins, her next opponent will be either French Open finalist Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova or Spaniard Sara Sorribes Tormo, who beat Osaka on clay at the Billie Jean Cup in 2020.

Alycia Parks reaches 1st WTA quarterfinal in Ostrava

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OSTRAVA, Czech Republic — American qualifier Alycia Parks is having quite the breakthrough tournament in Ostrava.

The 21-year-old Parks earned her first win against a top-10 ranked opponent by beating fourth-seeded Maria Sakkari 5-7, 7-5, 7-5 at the Agel Open on Thursday to reach her first WTA Tour quarterfinal.

The 144th-ranked Parks ousted former No. 1 Karolina Pliskova in the opening round – her first win against a top-20 opponent – and showed off her power by hitting 59 winners against Sakkari, compared to just nine for her opponent.

“I came out here not expecting anything, just playing my game, and it got me through the match,” Parks said.

Parks will next face former French Open champion Barbora Krejcikova, who advanced via walkover when Belinda Bencic withdrew with a left foot injury.

Caty McNally, another American qualifier who is playing doubles with Parks in Ostrava, also reached the last eight by beating wild-card entry Karolina Muchova 6-1, 3-6, 6-1. McNally is also into her first WTA quarterfinal and will face top-ranked Iga Swiatek, who advanced Wednesday.

Djokovic beats Van de Zandschulp to reach Astana quarters

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ASTANA, Kazakhstan — Add Botic van de Zandschulp to the long list of players to have been schooled by Novak Djokovic.

Djokovic eased past Van de Zandschulp 6-3, 6-1 on Thursday in his first career meeting with the 27-year-old Dutchman to reach the quarterfinals of the Astana Open.

Van de Zandschulp earned one break point in each set but couldn’t seriously threaten Djokovic, who is looking for a second straight indoor hardcourt title after winning in Tel Aviv last week.

“(In the) second set I think I started to read his serve better and just started swinging through the court more,” Djokovic said. “Botic is a quality tennis player. When he has time, he can hurt you, so I tried to take away that time from him and I’m very pleased with the way I played, particularly in the second.”

Djokovic will next face Karen Khachanov, who rallied to beat Marin Cilic 2-6, 6-3, 6-3. If the 21-time Grand Slam champion gets past that one, he could come up against fellow former No. 1 Daniil Medvedev. The second-seeded Russian beat Emil Ruusuvuori of Finland 6-3, 6-2 to move one match away from a potential rematch of last year’s U.S. Open final, when Medvedev beat Djokovic to deny his attempt at a calendar-year Grand Slam.

Medvedev will first have to beat Roberto Bautista Agut, who advanced Wednesday.