Podoroska Beats Serena: ‘It’s A Special Win’

Nadia Podoroska (photo: @wta/Instagram)

ROME/WASHINGTON, May 13, 2021 (by Michael Dickens)

Throughout their nearly-two-hour match, Nadia Podoroska looked comfortable on the red clay of Foro Italico’s Center Court. Serena Williams did not. Although the 23-time Grand Slam champion has thrice won titles on clay at Roland Garros, playing in her first match on clay this year – her first match since February’s Australian Open – there was a sense of awkwardness. Let’s be honest, Williams’ lack of match play exposed her rustiness.

Playing in the 1,000th WTA match of her career, the 39-year-old Williams from the United States bowed out in the second round of the Internazionali BNL d’Italia Wednesday, losing 7-6 (6), 7-5 to Podoroska. The 44th-ranked Argentine, who happens to be 15 years junior in age to Williams, made a name for herself when she reached the semifinals of the French Open last year. On Wednesday, Podoroska played steady and pulled out everything that has made her a worthy opponent on clay, from heavy topspin forehand returns to her ability to gracefully slide of the red dirt surface. What a high-caliber performance the 24-year-old gave – it was rock solid – and she contained Serena’s power.

“Well, she is one of my idols,” Podoroska said on the eve of her match against Williams. “I’m glad that I have the opportunity. Of course, I believe in my game. I know exactly what I have to do, but for sure, I want to enjoy the match.”

Podoroska’s win over the World No. 8 Williams was her third career Top 10 win and all of them have come in the past eight months. The victory gave her a modest two-match winning streak and advanced her to face No. 25 Petra Martic of Croatia, who was 7-5, 6-3 winner over 53rd-ranked lucky loser Kristina Mladenovic of France.

“It’s special win. [To] play against her, it’s an honor for me,” Podoroska said after her win. “I saw her playing when I grew up, so it was a special match for me.

“But most of all, I’m happy the way I played. I felt again comfortable on clay, on my game, and that’s most important for me. I think it was a very good match, high level. I knew that I have to play every point, fight for every ball. She didn’t play a tournament for a while, so I knew that maybe she did too many mistakes at the beginning or I have to push her to do them. But I think I played a great match.”

Podoroska hit 24 winners to 18 unforced errors and converted four of six break points against Williams, including in the final game of the one hour and 58-minute match. Williams hit 35 winners and committed 33 unforced errors. She was three-for-three on break-point opportunities against Podoroska. The Argentine outpointed Williams 78-73.

Williams looked for positives to accentuate during her virtual post-match press conference. “It’s tough to have a first match on clay,” she said. “It was definitely kind of good to go the distance and to try to be out there, but clearly I can do legions better.

“She has a good game, for sure, obviously. She’s very consistent. Overall, it was good for me to play such a clay court player on clay today, but it’s a little frustrating. But it’s all right. It is what it is.

“I have been training for months, but it feels definitely different on clay to make that last adjustment. Just filling out the game, finding the rhythm. Even sliding and confidence with that, with movement. … That’s always like a little struggle in the first two matches, and then I’m raring to go.”

Women’s draw ripped apart by upsets

Besides the upset of Williams, there were plenty of other upsets and surprises in the women’s draw when you consider that within a couple of hours, down went No. 2 seed Naomi Osaka, No. 3 seed and defending champion Simona Halep, No. 4 seed Sofia Kenin and No. 11 seed Petra Kvitova.

Osaka was upset by Jessica Pegula of the United States, 7-6 (2), 6-2, while Halep retired with a torn left calf early in the second set of her match against No. 26 Angelique Kerber, ahead 6-1, 3-3. Kenin went down quickly to No. 40 Barbora Krejcikova, 6-1, 6-4, and Kvitova went the distance before losing 113th-ranked Russian qualifier Vera Zvonareva, 6-4, 3-6, 6-4.

The World No. 31 Pegula dominated Osaka to record her fifth Top 10 win – and the job was completed in just 87 minutes. The American hit four aces and 22 overall winners to 21 unforced errors, converted four of five break-point chances and outpointed Osaka 74-64. The World No. 2 Osaka also hit four aces and 20 winners but racked up 37 unforced errors and converted just two of nine break points.

“I knew I was right there,” Pegula said during her virtual press conference. “I knew if I could just hang in there and play my service games smart, I could get opportunities on her serve. I did in the tie break especially. I thought I toughed out the first set mentally, and then the second set I started to play better.”

Pegula, who advanced to play No. 33 Ekaterina Alexandrova of Russia, explained why she’s been so successful against Top 10 competition. “It kind of just gradually happens, and all of a sudden the confidence is there where you feel comfortable,” she said. “You can feel the difference of your mindset and how you’re thinking, how you go about things. I think I have adjusted really well, because a lot of these big tournaments I have never played before, and it’s all a new experience, which is also a way to make it fun and make it exciting.”

Among the seeds who dodged upsets to advance to the round of 16 were: No. 5 seed Elina Svitolina, No. 7 seed Aryna Sabalenka, No. 9 seed Karolina Pliskova and No. 15 seed Iga Swiatek.

Wednesday’s WTA Italian Open results

Nadal wins another #NextGenATP challenge

For the second straight week, World No. 3 Rafael Nadal defeated a #NextGenATP rising star. Last week, it was 18-year-old Carlos Alcaraz of Spain in Madrid. This week, it was Italy’s 19-year-old Jannik Sinner, whom Nadal beat 7-5, 6-4 in two hours and 10 minutes. In their first meeting last year at Roland Garros, Nadal prevailed 7-6 (4), 6-4, 6-1.

The 18th-ranked Sinner showed no signs of nervousness against the King of Clay, who has won the Rome title nine times overall, including two of the last three years. However, Nadal was steady in hitting 25 winners to 21 unforced errors, converted five of 15 break points, and outpointed Sinner 75-64. In the end, it was Nadal’s experience that rewarded him with a third-round match against No. 13 seed Denis Shapovalov, who advanced over 69th-ranked Italian wild card Stefano Travaglia, 7-6 (2), 6-3. Nadal improved to 16-1 in Foro Italico opening matches.

“After Madrid, it was important to start with a positive feeling,” Nadal said after his victory. “Today was a tough match. I think I did a lot of things well. I made mistakes too, but combined those with positive things, too.”

Nadal had high praise for Sinner afterward. “I think Jannik is a very complete player. He’s still improving all the time. You can’t appreciate the improvement in one day. To see the improvements of players, need to follow them [for many] tournaments in a row. You follow him and you see that his level is higher and higher all the time.”

Six other seeds advanced to the round of 16, including: No. 4 Dominic Thiem, No. 5 Stefanos Tsitsipas, No. 6 Alexander Zverev, No. 7 Andrey Rublev, No. 9 Matteo Berrettini and No. 10 Roberto Bautista Agut. However, No. 3 seed Daniil Medvedev and No. 12 David Goffin were upset. Medvedev fell to fellow Russian No. 27 Aslan Karatsev, 6-2, 6-4, while Goffin lost to 64th-ranked Argentine qualifier Federico Delbonis, 6-2, 6-1.

Wednesday’s ATP Italian Open results

The beauty of the Pietrangeli at Foro Italico

The Pietrangeli is the third-largest show court at Foro Italico, with seating for 3,500 spectators. It is named for former Italian tennis great Nicola Pietrangeli (b. 1933), who won two singles titles at the French Championships in 1959-60.

“Pietrangeli itself is very beautiful; it’s one of the best courts on tour,” World No. 5 Stefanos Tsitsipas said after beating No. 43 Marin Cilic, 7-5, 6-2 on Pietrangeli Wednesday afternoon. “I feel like the atmosphere here is great. We’re surrounded by trees in the city and it’s very, very quiet which is important for tennis. And honestly, I can’t wait for the fans to come and fill in the stadium.”

Thursday’s Italian Open order of play

Djokovic salutes Serena’s 1,000th career match

By the numbers

What they’re saying

• World No. 1 and top seed Ashleigh Barty of Australia on winning her opening match against Yaroslava Shvedova of Kazakhstan, 6-4, 6-1, in Rome: “Room to improve without a doubt, but overall, I’m happy to get through and get another opportunity tomorrow to work on a few things. I feel like I’m really getting myself into the tournament here in Rome. I think it’s such a beautiful, iconic event and I’m really excited now that I get another opportunity tomorrow.” Next, Barty faces No. 28 Veronika Kudermetova of Russia, who advanced over No. 56 Caroline Garcia of France, 6-4, 6-4.

Dominic Thiem on surviving his opening match against 44th-ranked Marton Fucsovics of Hungary, 3-6, 7-6 (5), 6-0, after losing opening-round matches in each of his last two Rome appearances and missed competing at Foro Italico last year: “It was such a close match, especially in the second set. I knew he’d be a super-tough opponent, particularly coming from different conditions in Madrid. I was fighting all the match and stayed in there. At the end, I got the reward for fighting. I had difficulties with my timing and my serve. I have to hurt my opponent more with my shots. I still won a great match and I will try to improve for tomorrow.” Next, Thiem will oppose No. 33 Lorenzo Sonego of Italy, who beat 90th-ranked fellow Italian Gianluca Mager, 6-4, 6-4.

• Spain’s Garbiñe Muguruza on her come from behind second-round 2-6, 6-0, 7-5 victory over No. 69 Bernarda Pera of the United States: “I don’t think it was a great match, but we fought very well and I’m pretty happy with my attitude. It wasn’t my best day, but I stood there and fought hard. I tried just to stay calm and basically put the ball in, because in the first set I was doing so many mistakes and giving her so many opportunities. In the second set it was the opposite. In the third set it was a combination of errors.” Next, Muguruza faces No. 5 Elina Svitolina of Ukraine, who advanced with a 2-6 6-3, 6-4 win over No. 39 Amanda Anisimova of the United States.

• During his Tuesday media day virtual press conference, two-time Olympic champion Rafael Nadal said he had not yet decided on whether he would participate in the Tokyo Olympic Games this summer. “In a normal world I would never consider missing the Olympics,” he said. “There is no doubt about that. Everybody knows how important the Olympics are for me. Under these circumstances, I don’t know. Let’s see what’s going on in the next couple of months. But I need to organize my schedule. I don’t know yet. Honestly, I can’t give you a clear answer because I don’t know.”

• World No. 4 Aryna Sabalenka of Belarus on keeping her focus in defeating No. 51 Sara Sorribes Tormo of Spain, 7-5, 6-1: “It was a tough match and not the best tennis from me. But she was doing all the right things – moving very well, putting all the balls back. She made me run a lot and move a lot so it was tough from the beginning. I just kept saying to myself, ‘Keep going, keep moving, try to go through the ball.’ I was thinking about the movement on the court and trying to get a rhythm in the legs, and I think I did that very well in the second set.” Next, Sabalenka will take on No. 35 Coco Gauff of the United States, who beat No. 17 seed Maria Sakkari of Greece, 6-1, 1-6, 6-1.