Serena Williams had not won a match in three months and, following her first round exit in Rome last week, she was determined to get more match play so accepted a wild card to play the the inaugural Emilia-Romagna Open, a WTA 250 event being held at the President Tennis Club of Montechiarugolo in Parma, Italy.
I feel like I'm starting to feel more comfortable. I've always felt super comfortable on clay but this year has been a little more difficult than normal. I think it's because of the long hiatus I had off clay. Serena Williams
It was a gamble that so far has paid off as she won her opening round match on Monday against Italian teenager Lisa Pigato, 6-3 6-2, but her older sister, Venus, struggled and got more than she bargained for in terms of divine intervention when heavy winds resulted in a controversial time violation in her loss to Anna Schmiedlova.
Unsurprisingly, Serena is the top seed in Parma as a result of her World No 8 ranking, and the organisers must be delighted since she rarely plays down at this level. She is, of course, pursuing a record-equalling 24th Grand Slam title and needs the match practice.
“I’ve played everywhere,” the American said after the match, laughing. “So now I can add this to the list. The atmosphere is great, and it’s cool to be here.”
She had a good workout against the inspired young Italian qualifier, who won the junior Roland Garros doubles title last autumn and received a wild card into Parma’s qualifying draw, where she notched notable wins over Leonie Kung and Liudmilla Samsonova to make her WTA main-draw debut.
Pigato delighted the home crowd with an opening break of serve, only for Williams to reel off the next 4 games to swiftly restore order.
With the help of some powerful backhand drives, the teenager kept things relatively close from there but not enough to trouble the former World No 1, who clinched the opening set with a big first serve.
Williams made early in-roads on the Pigato serve in the second, breaking in the 3rd game and putting away a forehand winner for a second to move within sight of victory.
Earning match point with an ace, the American clocked one last service winner to book her spot in the second round after 67 minutes.
“Lisa played really well,” Serena said. “She told me she was only 17. Her future is super-bright – she handled the moment well, so I look forward to cheering for her in the future.”
The Italian wild card asked for a photo immediately after the match and the American was happy to oblige.
“It’s usually after the match, in the locker room, I take photos,” she told the press. “It was really cool and gutsy.
“It was her first WTA main draw match, so I thought it was a really good opportunity to take a photo – she’ll be able to look back on that in years.
“I wish I had done that with my first match, it would have been really cool.”
After her surprising opening round Internazionali BNL d’Italia loss to Nadia Podoroska last week, Serena is looking to maximise her preparation ahead of the second major tournament of 2021 in Paris in 10 days time.
“I feel like I’m starting to feel more comfortable,” she explained. “I’ve always felt super comfortable on clay but this year has been a little more difficult than normal. I think it’s because of the long hiatus I had off clay.”
Up next for the 3-time French Open champion is Katerina Siniakova, who opened play on Monday with a 6-1 6-3 win over another teenager, Clara Tauson from Denmark.
Tauson grabbed headlines by winning her first WTA title in Lyon, but retired from the 250 event in Charleston with a knee injury and has won just one match since.
Venus followed Serena on Center Court but bowed out to Slovak nemesis Anna Karolina Schmiedlova from Slovakia, who scored a 4th straight win over the 5-time Wimbledon champion, 5-7 6-2 6-2.
After taking the first set 7-5 despite being 5-2 down, the 40-year-old was losing her grip on the match when heavy winds forced her to take her time on serve, resulting in a time violation and a confrontation with the chair umpire.
“I can’t control God,” Williams told the umpire after going 4-1 down in the second set. “I’m just saying that wind blows and there is nothing I can do about that.
“I can’t control God, talk to him,” the former World No 1added, pointing a finger upwards before walking back to the baseline.
Venus lost her momentum as her unforced error count rose and a brief resurgence in the decider failed to prevent Schmiedlova from sealing her win after 2 hours 39 minutes.
Russia’s 4th seed Daria Kasatkina beat Hsieh Su-We from Taipei to set up a clash against Sloane Stephens, while 5th seed Amanda Anisimova also advanced as the American beat Italy’s Jasmine Paolini, 6-2 6-1.
Stephens, a former US Open champion and Roland Garros finalist, edged through a tough challenge against Catherine McNally, dispatching her fellow American, 7-6(4) 6-4.
In search of the form that took her to No 3 in the WTA rankings, Stephens has endured an up and down clay-court swing, reaching the Volvo Car Open quarter-finals and playing her first qualifying draw since 2012 in Rome where she came through but bowed out to good friend Madison Keys in three sets.
Playing her first red-clay tournament of 2021, McNally made it through qualifying to play Stephens for the first time in Parma, and brought her to the brink in the opening set, rallying from 2-5 down to force a tiebreak.
Withstanding another late surge from the youngster in the breaker, Stephens held off McNally to move on in just under 2 hours and she faces Kasatkina next.
In other first round results, China’s 6th seed Wang Qiang beat Misaki Doi from Japan, 6-2 5-7 6-1, and takes on Italian qualifier Martina Di Giuseppe next, who got past another Japanese, Nao Hibino, 7-5 7-6(5).
Another Italian, Camila Giorgi advanced with a 6-4 6-4 win over American Christina McHale to play Schmiedlova in round 2, while France’s Caroline Garcia, the No 8 seed, defeated Argentine qualifier Paula Ormaechea by the same score.