Naomi Osaka’s return to the Rome Open ended at the last 16 to China’s Zheng Qinwen on Monday with men’s fourth seed Andrey Rublev also exiting as environmental activists stopped play in two matches.

China’s Zheng breezed past four-time Grand Slam winner Osaka 6-2, 6-3 in one hour and 24 minutes to set up a last-eight clash with either Paula Badosa or third seed Coco Gauff.

Fourth seed Rublev, winner of the Madrid Open, was shocked 3-6, 6-3, 6-2 in his third match by French qualifier Alexandre Muller.

Japan’s Osaka was playing at the Foro Italico for the first time in three years after taking a break from the tour to have her first child and is ranked at 173 in the world.

The furthest she has gone in any tournament so far this season was her run to the quarterfinals in Doha, which she could not replicate in the Italian capital.

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However it was a positive tournament for Osaka, who has never won a title on clay but beat a top-20 ranked player on the surface for the first time, against Marta Kostyuk in the second round on Thursday.

“I think I’m happy with my performance in Rome. It’s been a while since I played well on — I guess I’ve never played well on clay — so I guess I’m happy,” Osaka told reporters.

“I definitely feel a lot more confident leaving than when I came.”

Just before Osaka’s elimination, activists from climate group Ultima Generazione (Last Generation) burst onto the Pietrangeli court where American Madison Keys was beating Sorana Cirstea, and on court 12 where a men’s doubles match was taking place.

Wearing orange vests, they threw a liquid and confetti onto the courts before being removed by security staff. After a half-hour stoppage to clean the court, Keys completed her win over Romania’s Cirstea 6-2, 6-1.

There were also protestors in the stands with a tournament spokesman telling AFP that at least one person had tried to glue their feet to the floor in order to slow their removal.

Not the greatest feeling

“Obviously it’s not the greatest feeling when you’re on court, your first reaction is kind of your own safety,” said Keys.

“I think maybe banning cementing glue from bags would be a start.

“It’s obviously something that’s becoming more of an occurence and something that tournaments are going to have to figure out how to stop.”

Daniil Medvedev will continue his title defence against Serbian qualifier Hamad Medjedovic, with the men’s tournament wide open following Sunday’s exit of top seed and six-time Rome winner Novak Djokovic.

Rome is missing the world’s top three men following Djokovic’s early elimination, with Italian world number two Jannik Sinner and Carlos Alcaraz both withdrawing ahead of the event.

And one of Medvedev’s key rivals, Rublev was also heading home.

Rublev had come to Rome fresh from claiming the Madrid title but his winning streak was stopped at seven matches.

Sixth seed and reigning Monte Carlo champion Stefanos Tsitsipas beat Briton Cameron Norrie in straight sets 6-2, 7-6 (7/1).

Later Iga Swiatek continues her bid for a third Rome title against Angelique Kerber, while Australian Open champion Aryna Sabalenka will face Elina Svitolina for the first time since their handshake row at last year’s French Open.

World number one Swiatek is yet to drop a set and is red-hot favourite to make the quarterfinals past unseeded German Kerber, who at 331 is the lowest-ranked player ever to reach the last 16 in this tournament.

Three-time French Open champion Swiatek arrived in Rome off the back of a thrilling triumph in Madrid, her third WTA 1000 title of the season after also winning at Indian Wells and Doha.

Belarusian second seed Sabalenka was accused by Ukraine’s Svitolina of inflaming tensions surrounding the Russia-Ukraine war after the Roland Garros quarterfinal between the pair in 2023.

Sabalenka waited at the net for a handshake after beating Svitolina, even though Svitolina had already insisted she was not going to offer one, as all Ukraine players refused to shake hands with Russian and Belarusian rivals in protest at the ongoing war.