WTA Tour Returns For Real In Palermo

WASHINGTON, August 4, 2020 (by Michael Dickens)

After five months away and three months of global exhibitions, the WTA tour returned for real on Monday afternoon in hot and windy Palermo, Sicily, in southern Italy, for the 31st Palermo Ladies Open. A limited number of fans were spread out in the 1,500-seat stadium court and had to follow social distancing protocols. Thanks to a couple of marathon matches, opening day didn’t end until the early hours of Tuesday morning.

“This is not a false alarm,” voiced Tennis Channel presenter Russ Thaler as he prepared to call the first official match – for women or men – a first-round match between 24th-ranked and sixth seed Donna Vekic of Croatia against Arantxa Rus from the Netherlands at 4 o’clock local time on the red clay Center Court of at the ASD Country Time Club.

In just her 11th tour match of the year, Vekic played through the afternoon heat and humidity and beat the 70th-ranked Dutch native from Delft, 6-1, 6-2, in just 75 minutes to advance to the second round. The triumph improved her 2020 win-loss record to 6-5.

Vekic played pretty solidly after being off the tour since March due to the coronavirus lockdown of professional tennis. Reunited with her former coach, Nick Horvath, she won 63 points on her service – including 77 percent of her first-serve points – and converted six of 13 break-point opportunities.

Playing on clay for the first time since last year’s French Open, Vekic powered her way through the first set by winning six consecutive games to close out the opening set. Then, she broke out to a 2-0 lead to start the second set. From there, it was just a matter of time for Vekic to put away her over-matched opponent.

“I’m definitely a little bit surprised [at the score],” said the 24-year-old Vekic, via a video call after the match, as quoted by the WTA website. “It was very tricky conditions. It was very windy so the ball was a little bit all over the court.

“I’m just definitely happy that I didn’t forget how to play tennis, how to play matches, how to win. It’s a huge relief.”

Next, Vekic will face 157th-ranked Italian wild card Elisabetta Cocciaretto, who scored an upset win over No. 45 Polona Hercog of Slovenia, 7-6 (1), 6-3.

It turned into a memorable Monday for the Italians. Besides Cocciaretto, No. 169 wild card Sara Errani, who won the Palermo championship back in 2012, need nearly three hours to beat No. 75 Sorana Cirstea of Romania, 7-5, 1-6, 6-4. It was Errani’s career-leading 179th victory on clay, which places her six ahead of second place Serena Williams’ 173. Then, No. 95 Jasmine Paolini came from a set down and played through a painful left thigh that required a medical timeout for treatment and beat No. 66 Daria Kasatkina of Russia, 5-7, 6-4, 6-4, in three hours and nine minutes. There were 21 service breaks between the two competitors and Paolini won by – what else? – breaking Kasatkina’s serve in the final game.

“It means a lot,” Paolini said after her win. “[It] was so emotional, because it’s in Italy, the first match, against Kasatkina. So, I’m very, very happy.”

Because of the lengthy back-to-back contests on Center Court – both which rank among the five longest WTA matches this year – the final match of the evening, between No. 3 seed and 20th-ranked Maria Sakkari of Greece and No. 69 Kristyna Pliskova (twin sister of World No. 3 Karolina Pliskova) didn’t start until well after midnight. It ended after shortly after two a.m. with an upset win by Pliskova over of Sakkari. The Czech won 6-4, 6-4 with a pair of service breaks being the big difference. Pliskova, who won 81 percent of her first-serve points, also saved all three break points she faced.

Other first-round winners:

• No. 65 Laura Siegemund of Germany defeated No. 81 Irina-Camelia Begu of Romania, 6-3, 6-4, and outpointed her opponent 70-60.

• No. 7 seed Dayana Yastremska of Ukraine, ranked 25th, beat No. 83 Sara Sorribes Tormo of Spain, 6-3, 6-4.

• No. 8 seed Ekaterina Alexandrova of the Czech Republic, ranked 27th, came from a set down to earn a 5-7, 6-0, 6-1 win over No. 42 Kristina Mladenovic of France. Mladenovic was done in by 20 double faults while Alexandrova capitalized on 10 service breaks.

Notes: No. 1 seed Petra Martic of Croatia, ranked 15th, will be second on Center Court Tuesday for her first-round match against No. 57 Alison Van Uytvanck of Belgium. No. 2 Marketa Vondrousova of the Czech Republic , Estonia’s No. 4 Anett Kontaveit and No. 5 Elise Mertens from Belgium will also be in action.

• On Monday, Kaja Juvan of Slovenia, Liudmila Samsonova of Russia, Aliaksandra Sasnovich of Belarus and Nadia Podoroska from Argentina won final-round qualifying draw matches to reach the main draw. Lucky loser Oceane Dodin of France was also added.