On a day of major upsets at the Internazionali BNL d’Italia, the underdogs prevailed, seeing off seeds Naomi Osaka, Simona Halep, Sofia Kenin, Serena Williams, Petra Kvitova, and Maria Sakkari in a procession of upsets at the Foro Italico in Rome.
It's been a while since I really played a lot on clay. I just played the French Open last year, and that was the only clay court tournament. It's kind of taken me longer than I thought to, kind of, get used to it again, but I'm starting to find my range. I know she doesn't love clay, so I just tried to be the clay court player out there today, and it worked just good enough. Jessica Pegula
Triumphant on Wednesday were Jessica Pegula, Angelique Kerber, Barbora Krejcikova, Nadia Podoroska, Vera Zvonareva and Coco Gauff, who all brought resilient prowess to the red clay in fearlessly overcoming mightier foes.
Gone also was Tuesday’s troublesome rain and, against this dramatic backdrop, top seed Ash Barty calmly breezed into the 3rd round alongside 5th seed Elina Svitolina, Aryna Sabalenka (7), Karolina Pliskova (9), Garbiñe Muguruza (12) and Iga Swiatek (15).
Simona Halep, the No 3 seed, was a set ahead against fellow Grand Slam winner Angelique Kerber of Germany before suffering a leg injury, which forced her retire and now leaves the Romanian’s participation at the French Open in doubt.
The score was 6-1, 3-3 in Halep’s favour when the defending champion retired, and she since has confirmed the injury is a calf tear.
Kerber assisted the trainer in helping Halep, who appeared at a loss for the source of the pain, asking: ”Is it broken?” before shaking the German’s hand to officially forfeit the match.
“Unfortunately an ultrasound has revealed that I have a tear in my left calf,” Halep revealed on social media later. “I will get an MRI tomorrow to understand the injury in more detail, but at the moment we are unsure of recovery time. I’m so disappointed to end my tournament in Rome like this.
“I will do everything I can to take care of the injury and be back as soon as possible. Thanks so much for your support and I’ll keep you posted on my progress.”
Halep and Kerber are good friends, having played doubles together in Miami and practising together in Madrid.
“I was focusing more on my service game, because I start to play better in the second set,” Kerber said in her post-match press conference. “Then suddenly she called the trainer. Yeah, I know that Simona is not calling trainers just like this.
“We know each other very well on and off courts. This is our life on tour now, so we get through all of these situations the last year, especially now.
“When you’re getting older, I think it’s also a little bit easier for us. No, we are very good friends. That’s why I’m really not feeling great when I see something like this happen today. I hope that she recovers soon.”
Japan’s Naomi Osaka, the reigning US Open and Australian Open champion, fell 7-6(2) 6-2 to American Jessica Pegula.
After losing in the second round of the Madrid Open, Osaka admitted that she is still not comfortable on the red dirt but was hoping for an extended run in Rome.
The 4-time Grand Slam winner started well enough as she raced into a 3-0 lead, but Pegula broke back in game 5 and then dominated the tiebreak.
After losing her serve in the 4th game of the second, Osaka looked set for a comeback when she immediately broke back, but the American won the final 3 games to take the match.
“I was a little annoyed,” Pegula said about her slow start. “I didn’t make many first serves.
“Against someone that hits as big as her, I was getting frustrated. I was, like, this isn’t going to work if I don’t start putting in some serves. So I definitely started off frustrated but was able to get back into the match.”
Time and time again, Pegula withstood Osaka’s pace, and eventually applied her own crisp array of groundstrokes for outright winners of eliciting errors from the Japanese.
The first set lasted 58 minutes, while the second was half as long.
“It’s been a while since I really played a lot on clay,” said Pegula. “I just played the French Open last year, and that was the only clay court tournament.
“It’s kind of taken me longer than I thought to, kind of, get used to it again, but I’m starting to find my range.
“I know she doesn’t love clay, so I just tried to be the clay court player out there today, and it worked just good enough.”
Pegula will face Russian Ekaterina Alexandrova for a place in the quarter-final after the World No 33 advanced with a walkover after 13th seed Jennifer Brady withdrew.
World No 1 Ash Barty, the 2019 French Open champion who did not defend the clay-court Grand Slam title last year over coronavirus concerns, breezed past Kazakhstan’s Yaroslava Shvedova, 6-4 6-1.
Days after her shock defeat in the Madrid Open final, the Australian overcame an early break of serve to see off Shvedova, a former World No 25 and 3-time Grand Slam quarter-finalist making her way back after giving birth to twins.
“Slava’s got a game that can take it away from you quite quickly and she got a fast start,” Barty said. “I was just trying to work my way back in and give myself a chance.”
Playing with her left thigh strapped, Barty dropped her opening service game but rallied to level at 4-4, taking control of the match from there on in, taking the win after an hour 18 minutes.
“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,” Barty said after her win. “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.”
Bidding for a first Rome quarter-final on her 3rd appearance, Barty will meet 28th-ranked Russian Veronika Kudermetova, who beat France’s 56th-ranked Caroline Garcia, 6-4 6-4.
No 5 seed Elina Svitolina survived a barrage of power to turn around her match with American Amanda Anisimova, 2-6 6-3 6-4, and she will now face 12th-seeded Garbiñe Muguruza, who overcame 9 double-faults and came from a double break down in the 3rd set to quell qualifier Bernarda Pera, also from the US, 2-6 6-0 7-5.
Belarus’ Aryna Sabalenka, seeded 7th, overcame Muguruza’s compatriot Sara Sorribes Tormo, 7-5 6-1, and takes on Coco Gauff on Thursday, after the American 17-year old upset Greece’s Maria Sakkari, 6-1 1-6 6-1, in a topsy-turvy encounter with the 17th seed.
Former Rome champion Karolina Pliskova, seeded 9th, also advanced past Anastasija Sevastova of Latvia 6-2,6-3.
The Czech, a former World No 1, built on her powerful serve, and converted 6 of her 13 break point chances and next plays Russian veteran Vera Zvonareva, who ousted Czech 11th seed Petra Kvitova, 6-4 3-6 6-4, in 2 hours and 23 minutes.
Both former World No 2s, Zvonareva and Kvitova had squared off 6 times previously, with a 3-3 split, but their last meeting came nearly a decade ago at the 2011 WTA Finals.
Despite a great disparity in their current rankings, 113th-ranked Zvonareva came through with the victory by converting 7 of her 8 break points, which included 3 breaks of big-serving Kvitova in the decider.
Meanwhile, Iga Swiatek of Poland, the current French Open champion, defeated American Madison Keys, 7-5 6-1, for the chance to play Czech Barbora Krejcikova, who took out the 4th-seeded Sofia Kenin, 6-1 6-4.
In another appearance by a tour veteran, Serena Williams was playing her 1,000th match on tour at the age of 39, but she lost to World No 44 Nadia Podoroska, 7-6(6) 7-5, in an hour and 58 minutes.
It was a tough re-introduction to clay-court tennis for the 23-time Grand Slam champion, who has won Rome 4 times and was playing her first match since bowing out of the Australian Open semi-finals.
She gave the Argentine all she could handle in the opening act, but Podoroska’s defensive skills proved far too strong and she advances to a contest with Petra Martic, after the Croatian got past France’s Lucky Loser Kristina Mladenovic, 7-5 6-3.
Podoroska, 24, enjoyed the quicker start, twice breaking Willians, a former World No 1 to serve for the first set.
Williams emphatically responded each time and ultimately forced a tiebreak in which Podoroska blazed out to a 5-1 lead but, while 3 set points went begging, the Argentine took the set on her 4th with a forehand into the open court to put herself in sight of the upset.
“It’s special win. [To] play against her, it’s an honour for me. I saw her playing when I grew up, so it was a special match for me,” Podoroska said after the match.
Williams struggled to find openings on the Argentine’s serve as Podoroska again broke first in the second to ease herself ahead 5-2.
The 23-time major champion made one last stand to force a decider, reeling off 3 straight games to even the score at 5 games apiece, but a confident hold from Podoroska restored her momentum.
Ahead 3 match points at 0-40, Podoroska edged over the finish line as Williams went long on a forehand, her 33rd unforced error of the contest.
In all, Podoroska played the cleaner match, striking 24 winners to 18 unforced errors while breaking the Williams serve 4 times in 2 sets.
“But most of all, I’m happy the way I played,” she continued. “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.”
Williams, who is still chasing for her elusive record-equalling 24th Grand Slam title, can take heart in 35 winners, but will rue a 48% first-serve percentage that kept her on her back foot too many times in the match.