On a wet and dreary Friday at the Internazionali BNL d’Italia in Rome, World No 1 Ash Barty retired from her quarter-final match against Coco Gauff, waving on the American teenager into the semis after leading by a set, while Karolina Pliskova survived 3 match points before defeating Jelena Ostapenko and Petra Martic got past Jessica Pegula.
I hate withdrawing. I hate pulling out of a match halfway through. It's not in my makeup, not what I like to do, but it was really important today that I listen to what my body was telling me to make sure that in a couple weeks' time we're good to go. It's something I have had to manage over my career. It's an injury that began when I was quite young, when I was 15 or 16 years old. It just pops up every now and again. Ash Barty
Pliskova and Martic will contest a place in the Rome final, but Gauff has to wait for the winner of the match between Elina Svitolina and Iga Swiatek, which was held over until Saturday morning due to the rain that prompted organisers to cancel Friday’s night session.
It was a difficult day for everyone, although Pliskova’s 2 hour 20 minute battle with Ostapenko got done before the rains came in earnest as she eventually pulled off the win, 4-6 7-5 7-6(1).
The 9th-seeded Czech had to come from a set down to win the thrilling contest with the Latvian, who will be disappointed not to have made more of her opportunities.
The biggest loss to the tournament, however, comes with Barty’s retirement despite taking the first set off Gauff, 6-4, and leading 2-1 in the second before pulling out of the contest with a right arm injury.
The Australian engaged on a fascinating physical and tactical battle with the American 17-year old, coming back from an early break before the first suspension of play because of the rain.
On resumption, Barty had a compression sleeve over her right arm in addition to the thigh wrap on her left left she has sported for most of the week, but she easily wrapped up the first set.
“Coco and I, we were accepting of the situation,” Barty said about the conditions. “It’s unfortunate that I wasn’t able to finish the match.”
The Aussie told reporters that the arm injury has been a recurring problem in her career.
“It became worse while we were playing,” she said. “So, I think, that’s the challenging thing, is to make the decision to stop. It’s never nice. It’s the thing that I hate the most is not being able to finish a tennis match.
“But the pain was becoming too severe, so it was important that I listen to my body and of course try and do the right thing, knowing that we have a Grand Slam in two weeks’ time.”
The top seed was playing her 16th singles match of the clay season, with a 15-2 win-loss record, and this was her first withdrawal in nearly 3 years, when she retired in the second set of the semi-finals at the 2018 Internationaux de Strasbourg.
“I hate withdrawing. I hate pulling out of a match halfway through. It’s not in my makeup, not what I like to do, but it was really important today that I listen to what my body was telling me to make sure that in a couple weeks’ time we’re good to go,” Barty added.
“It’s something I have had to manage over my career. It’s an injury that began when I was quite young, when I was 15 or 16 years old. It just pops up every now and again.
“I think the conditions today certainly didn’t help that, but I mean, we’re confident we know how to manage it, so we just kind of move on and know that the right decision was made today, as hard as it is.”
After Gauff had broken in game 3 of the opening set and Barty had pegged the American back, there was a nearly two-hour rain delay.
In what was a high-quality match in the wet and heavy conditions prior to Barty’s retirement, the World No 1 hit 20 winners to 15 unforced, and broke serve twice.
She was a break down in the opening set at 2-1, but immediately restored parity and broke to wrap up a one-set lead on her 4th set point.
“When she called the physio, I mean, I knew she had her leg taped before the match, but I think she always has that taped… When she came up to me, I was shocked. I didn’t know what to make of it, just because I didn’t feel like there was anything going on,” Gauff said. “It’s not a way you want to win a match.
“At the end, when she told me she was retiring, forfeiting or retiring the match… Obviously I felt for her, but when you have the chance to play the No 1 player in the world, it’s not a good feeling to win this way.
“I send the best well wishes, and hopefully she can get well before the French Open.”
As a result, Gauff reached her maiden WTA 1000 semi-final and the 17-year-old’s run this week assures her a ranking rise into the Top 30.
Up next, Gauff will face either Elina Svitolina or Iga Swiatek for a place in the final.
Earlier, former champion Karolina Pliskova returned the semi-finals after saving 3 match points in a tight win over Jelena Ostapenko, 4-6 7-5 7-6(1).
Thanks to 3 double-faults, Ostapenko held the match points on Pliskova service game at 4-5 in the third, but the Czech was able to rebound and then won the last 7 points of the thrilling encounter.
“Definitely horrible start for me,” Pliskova said. “Super slow. Just going from that match yesterday where I had just time for everything, today there was not much time for anything.
“But just proud, I think, mostly how I fight because I was not really feeling well on the court today.
“Somehow, for some reason, I was not playing, of course, my best tennis, but I found a way, of course, like, you can call it luck, but, yeah, I’m just happy that I stayed in there and fight till the end.”
Last year’s finalist has struggled in each match this week, but something is different in her attitude as the wins have started to rack up.
She found her best composure to resist and accept Ostapenko’s stormy game that rarely lets anyone dictate the fate of the rallies.
The Latvian started hot, painting the lines with her ground-strokes, then just missing, and then hitting them again, but Pliskova slowly got a handle on the rallies as her serve and return gradually put pressure on her rival.
From the middle of the second set, the quality of the match improved and, once Pliskova had taken it to level the match, the drama rose up the scale.
Ostapenko went for riskier shots with varying results, while Pliskova experienced troubles on her serve, so much so that, in a game with two consecutive double-faults, she had to face 3 match points.
The 2017 Roland Garros champion almost had it, but once her 3rd chance had gone, she lost her focus and surrendered the final tiebreak with a handful unforced errors, winning just 1 point.
Pliskova will now take on former French quarter-finalist but unseeded Petra Martic from Croatia, who stopped American Jessica Pegula, 7-5 6-4.
“I don’t know how many wins in total I have in Rome,” Martic said. “I think this will be my most successful tournament of all.
“I just couldn’t perform here, for some reason. I’m really happy that, you know, especially not having a good start to the season.
“Rome is hopefully gonna make a change for me and things are gonna start going upwards for me from now on.”
This would not mean much at any other time, but Martic is coming from a very difficult spell in her career.
“End of last year, I was winning matches, but I wasn’t happy with my game already then,” admitted the 30-year-old, who arrived in Rome on a negative streak of 5 consecutive losses.
“I couldn’t find the confidence in my shots, and then I lose the picture of how I should play tennis overall. Like once you get insecure out there, things just start rolling downhill really quickly.”
She then crossed paths with former Roland Garros champion Francesca Schiavone and has started to find her balance again this week.
“Once I got Francesca onboard, I really, like, that was one of the first things I told her, like, I just need to find confidence in my shots, and then it’s gonna start rolling,” she added.
“We really just worked on the basics, because then, once I’m confident from the baseline, then the net game is gonna work, my serve is gonna come, things around are gonna be okay.
“I really feel like I’m getting more and more confidence with each second that I spend on the court.”
Confidence proved the key to her victory against an opponent who did not give up on any rally and forced her to defend and counter-attack continuously, but, at the last, the match was decided on just a few better shots.