Donna Vekić goes down in history as the first player to win a tour-level match in the post-shutdown era when, 5 months after the last WTA tournament took place, the Palermo Open re-started the WTA Tour on Monday on the Italian island of Sicily, while the pandemic that caused the suspension of pro tennis continues to wreak havoc across the globe.
I won 8 games in a row at one point. I was definitely a little bit surprised with my level today, I have to say. I have been practicing really well but I haven’t played a match in 5 months, so I didn’t really know what to expect. Before the match, I said to myself, ‘just stay calm, even if you’re not playing amazing. Just hang in there, be competitive, stay tough’. I was playing really well, so it’s a good feeling.” Donna Vekić
On a day when speculation increased as to whether the Madrid Open will be cancelled as a result of a new wave of alarming COVID-19 trends in Spain, Vekić stepped onto court to beat Arantxa Rus of the Netherlands, 6-1 6-2, in windy conditions in the first official match for men or women since early March.
“I’m definitely happy I didn’t forget how to play tennis, how to play matches, how to win,” Vekić said. “It’s a huge relief so I’m really happy right now.
“It was definitely a bit strange. I was really nervous yesterday, even more today, but after the first few games I just kind of relaxed and I was focused.”
Before the first ball was struck in the main draw, however, organisers faced problems, including the withdrawal of Wimbledon champion Simona Halep due to ‘travelling anxiety’ despite being assured that she will be exempt from quarantine rules, and then, a player in the qualifying draw pulled out after testing positive for COVID-19 over the weekend.
Tournament Director Oliviero Palma is nevertheless proud to be fielding a draw with Croatia’s Petra Martic, the World No 15, as the top seed, and all the other seeded players ranked in the top 30 for the 31st edition of his clay court tournament.
All the players in the singles main draw come from 15 countries, all across Europe.
“The first tournament after the suspension is more concerned with the safety aspect firstly,” Palma told ubitennis.net. “Sport comes after.
“Even though we had little time, we are being able to control and foresee all kinds of situations.
“The world has been waiting for the first tournament post-COVID with the public and to understand whether we can go back to normal, although with all due precautions.
“Previous tasks do not count now, this is not the 31st Palermo Ladies Open, this is the first tournament after lockdown. Everything is different.”
Palma added that his event has been able to go ahead due to a lower number of cases of COVID-19 and what he describes as ‘faith’ from the local government.
“The Sicilian government had, and has faith in, the 31st Palermo Ladies Open and opened the Centre Court to a limited number of spectators, exactly to test this opportunity,” he said, acknowledging that his event is taking place with a significant economic hit.
“This is an act of love for tennis. We didn’t look at the balance sheet, this year,” he explained. “Our marketing experts explained to us that we will have to evaluate the revenues over this and the next year.
“Losses, however, are estimated to be around 50,000 euros.”
Players are undergoing two types of tests called polymerase chain reaction (PCR) and Serological.
“Thanks to the strictness of protocols, we successfully intercepted a positive case,” Palma said, referencing Bulgaria’s Viktoriya Tomova, the player reportedly tested positive for the virus but did not show any symptoms at the time.
“The protocol dictates that players arrive in Palermo having already undergone [about 4 days before] a PCR test.
“As soon as they arrive, they do a serologic and a PCR test. They then go to their hotel room, which they can’t leave until we have the test result, normally within12 hours.
“As she receives the negative result, she leaves isolation, receives the badge and can start training.”
Tomova was the only player to withdraw from qualifying due to ‘illness’ but there has been no official confirmation she is the one in isolation.
Palermo got under way on Monday, no doubt much to the relief of the WTA, with Donna Vekić winning the first tour-level match in post-shutdown.
Stepping on court to open play in the late afternoon, Vekić played her first WTA match in 5 months and apart from a slight dip in form in the second set, the Croatian overpowered Arantxa Rus, 6-1 6-2, in 76 minutes.
“I won 8 games in a row at one point. I was definitely a little bit surprised with my level today, I have to say,” Vekić said. “I have been practicing really well but I haven’t played a match in five months, so I didn’t really know what to expect.
“Before the match, I said to myself, ‘just stay calm, even if you’re not playing amazing. Just hang in there, be competitive, stay tough’.
“I was playing really well, so it’s a good feeling.”
Competitors arrived in Sicily on Friday for COVID-19 testing as part of the tournament’s protocols.
Vekić previously tested negative for coronavirus in Zadar, Croatia after attending the Adria Tour, a planned four-weekend series that was ultimately abandoned following an outbreak intensified by the event’s lack of social-distancing measures.
This week marks Vekić’s debut in Palermo, one that will stay with her given the requirements it took to receive the green light.
“I had a couple of tests so far. The one here on Friday was the most painful one,” Vekić said. “I had tears running down my face for 3 minutes after she went up to my brain and gave it a good mix, so that was interesting.
“The rules are really strict here on site, so as long as everyone has some common sense and tries to be careful, we’re going to be fine.”
The racket tap has emerged from the series of exhibition events as an alternative to handshakes, while ball kids, when they were present, are no longer responsible for player towels.
The strict rules in Palermo include no showers on site, and no autographs or photos with fans, a limited number of who are allowed into the 1,500-seat stadium court and have to follow social distancing measures.
24-year old Vekić is thrilled to be back competing again and next meets Italian wild card Elisabetta Cocciaretto, who dispatched Polona Hercog, 7-6(1) 6-3.
“It’s really great to see everyone again. I saw Maria [Sakkari] in Monaco, so we were hanging out. Really happy to see her again. Definitely miss all my WTA friends. I’m just really happy to be playing matches again, to be competing.”
Maria Sakkari was the first seed to tumble in Palermo, defeated by Kristyna Pliskova, who pulled off a 6-4 6-4 win over the Greek in a late-night match to reach the second round.
The World No 69 avenged her loss on the grass at Wimbledon in 2017 after 87 minutes, notching up the 7th win over a Top 20 player in her career.
In an encounter which started after midnight, the left-handed Pliskova was impeccable on serve, facing only 3 break points and fending all of them off.
The Czech won 81 percent of points off of her first serve, while breaking Sakkari in the opening game of each set to ease to victory.
“The conditions were really tough,” Pliskova told media after the late-night win wrapped up at around 2 am. “Before the match, I was also sleeping a little bit! We stayed so late here, I think it’s tough for [Sakkari] as well.
“The body is not used to playing at 2:00 a.m.,” Pliskova continued. “But I think my serve was there, like almost always, and it helped me quite a lot.”
Pliskova nexts meet two-time Palermo champion Sara Errani, who claimed a gruelling three-setter over Sorana Cirstea of Romania.
The former World No 5 needed nearly 3 hours to fight off Cirstea earlier on Monday, and set up her first meeting with Pliskova.
“[Errani is] at home here, so for sure the people will cheer for her,” said Pliskova. “She had quite a tough match today, I saw. It’s very different from today, but I will try to hold my serve and hopefully I will also break her!”
In other matches, No 8 seed Ekaterina Alexandrova had to come back from a set down to defeat Kristina Mladenovic, 5-7 6-0 6-1, while homeland hope Jasmine Paolini outlasted former Top 10 player Daria Kasatkina of Russia, 5-7 6-4 6-4, and Laura Siegmund saw off Irina-Camelia Begu, 6-3 6-4.