Elena Rybakina won the Internazionali BNL d’Italia when Ukraine’s Anhelina Kalinina retired early in the second set in the final that went onto Campo Centrale a little before 11pm on Saturday night.
I can play good on all the surfaces. It's just, maybe for clay, I need to be ready more physically and, maybe, have a lot of preparation. i'm proud that I can maintain this level. I can see improvements on the court, physically also. I think there is still a lot of room to improve. Elena Rybakina
Organisers have been criticised for not holding the women’s final over until Sunday after rain disrupted Saturday’s schedule, which also forced the doubles trophy match to be moved onto the Pietrangeli stadium earlier in the evening.
The rain has heavily impacted play across the week, with matches suspended and delayed, but scheduling the two men’s semi-finals ahead of the women’s singles and doubles finals in such conditions sparked outrage amongst pundits and fans alike, with boos clearly audible during a chaotic trophy presentation ceremony after the final.
A somewhat bewildered Rybakina said: “Of course, happy with the title. Not the way I want to finish this match.
“It’s been great, I think, results for Anhelina. She played some tough battles. Really happy for her improvement. Hopefully she can continue like this.
“Pity she couldn’t finish the match. I hope that it’s nothing serious. So hopefully she can recover quick and she can continue like this.”
Kalinina, an unlikely finalist at the start of the WTA 1000 event, blamed fatigue and a left thigh injury for her withdrawal from the biggest match of her career, when the score was standing at 6-4, 1-0, 15-0 in favour of Rybakina, after she had called the trainer and then left the court in tears.
“I’m really sorry that I couldn’t play,” Kalinina said during the awards ceremony as the crowd, which had waited under the rain for hours before the night session started, whistled.
Later she said: “I feel I’m at my physical limit. I felt the leg after the quarter-finals. I pushed myself yesterday, and today I started, but after two, three games I couldn’t. I was trying, but it was absolutely impossible.”
Kalinina had spent more than 4 hours longer on court than Rybakina entering the final, having won the longest match on tour this season, 3 hours and 41 minutes against Beatriz Haddad Maia from Brazil in the quarter-finals, while she also needed 3 sets to beat Russia’s Veronika Kudermetova in an emotionally charged semi-final on Friday.
The 26-year-old, who is good friends with Rybakina, said her only goal now is to recover and get back to working on her game.
“I don’t have expectations,” she said. “I have my goals concerning my tennis, not the ambitions about counting [ranking] points.
“I’m trying to focus on my tennis, on my game, what I have to improve. I have a lot of things to improve, I have a lot of work to do.
“[Quitting] was absolutely correct, even though emotions [told me] I want to play today,” she added. “After I went off court, I almost fell in the locker room because the leg started cramping. [It was] the absolutely correct decision.”
Rybakina, the No 7 seed, had lost to Kalinina, seeded 30, in their only previous meeting, on the clay courts of Charleston last year, but she dominated on this occasion with 21-9 with winners and looked increasingly more comfortable on clay ahead of Roland Garros before the Ukrainian retired after 65 minutes.
She also added 3 aces to her tour-leading total of 278 so far this year, with 32 of those coming in Rome over the last two weeks.
“I can play good on all the surfaces,” Rybakina said. “It’s just, maybe for clay, I need to be ready more physically and, maybe, have a lot of preparation.”
Rybakina reached the final of the Australian Open, and also won an elite title in Indian Wells, while was the runner-up in Miami.
“I’m proud that I can maintain this level,” she said. “I can see improvements on the court, physically also. I think there is still a lot of room to improve.”
Ironically, Rybakina benefitted from three mid-match withdrawals this week, from Anna Kalinskaya, Iga Swiatek and now Kalinina, and, on Monday, she will move up to a career-high No 4 in the rankings.
“She’s serving 200 kph [125 mph],“ Kalinina observed. “She’s also making winners like no one on tour. Anyone can win in Paris, but she has good chances.
“I am sure if she’s going to do like this, maybe new World No 1 for sure.”
Rybakina, who was born in Moscow and has represented Kazakhstan since 2018, when that country offered funding to support her tennis career, has won 28 tour-level matches this year, which ties her in second place on tour with Swiatek, the World No 1, with only World No 2 and reigning Australian Open champion Aryna Sabalenka winning more at 29.
“I’m proud that I can maintain this level,” Rybakina said. “It’s not easy, with all the scheduling, travelling.
“I think we’re doing a good job with the team. I can see improvements on the court, physically also. I think we’re on a right way.”
A lengthy opening game went against Rybakina as she dropped serve, and Kalinina eventually built a 3-1 first-set lead, but the Kazakh pulled back level at 3-3, and wrapped up her come-back with a break at 5-4 behind powerful service returns.
Kalinina played one point into the second game of the second set, saying that she could not step on her left leg, and, after the physio arrived on court, she stopped there and then.
“I’m most proud of my fighting spirit these two weeks,” she said later. “I was fighting despite the score, any situation, any weather conditions, opponents. Everyone was very tough. A serious draw.”
It’s clear that more rest would have helped Kalinina to recover after her previous lengthy 3-setters, and social media lit up with criticism of the organiser’s order of play when there was a day in hand.
Alizé Cornet slammed the organisation, saying it was ‘sad’ one of the biggest clay court finals in the women’s calendar was impacted with less people in the crowd, and viewers on TV because of the scheduling.
Fans were also frustrated with the late timing of the match, coming after a week of empty seats in the main stadiums because the Italian tournament had raised the price of ticket entry.
Tennis great Rennae Stubbs led the outrage over the chaotic trophy ceremony when Rybakina was announced as the winner and called up first, ahead of the runner-up, which is against tradition.
Stubbs called the presentation ‘the worst’ she has seen in her life: “What the hell is going on with this presentation? Also the fact that the women are playing a final of a 1000 at midnight is an abomination!!!!!
“Then they announced the winner first!?? And forgot about the runner up! Dear lord!!! Wooof!!! I love Italy I mean LOVE but they are NOT the worlds most organized!” she continued.
The criticism comes after the Madrid Open was slammed for the outfits for the ball girls and the scheduling for the women’s matches, with Swiatek calling out the tournament for putting on matches so late in the evening during her speech after the final.
The women’s doubles final in Madrid also saw the finalists denied a chance to speak in the trophy celebration, a controversy that continues to rumble on.
Nevertheless, Rybakina’s win is her 5th career title, which includes last year’s Wimbledon Championship, and, as she rises to World No 4 ahead of the French Open, she will enter Roland Garros as one of the favourites alongside Swiatek and Sabalenka.
In the doubles final, Australian Storm Hunter & Elise Mertens from Belgium, the 4th seeds, captured their first team title defeating American top seeds Coco Gauff & Jessica Pegula, 6-4 6-4, in the final.
Hunter & Mertens’ win capped off a dominant fortnight in Rome, in which they lost just one set and scored wins over Kirsten Flipkens & Alicja Rosolska, Camila Rosatello & Angelica Moratelli, Timea Babos & Anna Danilina, Marie Bouzkova & Bethanie Mattek-Sands, and the top Americans.
Due to the threat of continuing rain, the doubles final, which was originally scheduled for after the singles final on Campo Centrale, was moved to Court Pietrangeli and played in front of an enthusiastic standing-room-only crowd.
Hunter & Mertens struck first, breaking on a deciding point to lead 2-1, and while the top seeds got the break back to tie the set at 4-4, Gauff was broken in the next game.
Mertens closed out the set by holding serve in a tense 30-all game, with Hunter closing out the set with an overhead winner.
“I think in the first set we were a little bit more dominant, the ones who were crossing, putting first serves in,” Mertens said. “I think that made the difference, we held serve.”
Gauff & Pegula came into the final riding a strong wave of form, having reached their third consecutive WTA 1000 final, a stretch that included their second title of the season at the Miami Open.
They immediately took advantage of a slight dip in form from the eventual champions, breaking Hunter for a 3-1 lead before Pegula consolidated to 4-1.
“I think the biggest thing was first serve percentage,” Hunter said. “They both hit really well from the back and hit really good returns. It was taking pressure off us to make first serves. The minute I was missing first serves, Coco was hitting big backhands.
“We just tried to compete really hard and even if the score is 0-40 or 40-0, just stay in the game. Even if we didn’t win the game, keep it as close as possible. Even if we didn’t win the game, keeping it as close as possible, you try to keep the momentum going forward.”
Gauff lost her serve from 40-15 up to give back the break advantage, and with Hunter serving down 3-4, the Americans won the longest and best rally of the match to earn a deciding point to break, but Hunter closed out the game after Gauff mishit a forehand return, levelling the set at 4-4.
The surge continued, as Hunter & Mertens broke Pegula to lead 5-4, and the Belgian served out the win in clinical fashion.
“In the second set when we had a little bit of a lull and they lifted, we just did well to keep every game closer,” Hunter said. “We managed to stick it out and get the win.”
The title is Mertens’ 17th career doubles title, and Hunter’s 6th.