Once again one of the sport’s biggest champions ended up winning the final big clay tune-up event for the French Open. Serena WIlliams walked away with the trophy at the Campo Centrale, winning her first title of the year. René Denfeld recaps the women’s final at the Foro Italico in Rome.
Sometimes it only takes one tournament to flip an entire narrative on its head.
Serena Williams had one of these weeks in Rome, arriving with question marks over some of her losses in 2016 and moving through the tournament to capture her fourth Italian Open title, defeating Madison Keys 7-6(5) 6-3 in the finals.
The American is always a favorite, no matter where she steps to the baseline, but with murmurings of a 2015 hangover and her sparse schedule of play, no one was quite sure what to expect from the world number one when she set foot at the Foro Italico.
A little over a week later, the 34-year-old lifted her first trophy of the year and made a strong statement heading into Paris, not dropping a single set on her way to her 70th title overall.
“It feels great (getting a title). I mean, I have played, let’s see, US Open, Australian, Miami, Indian Wells. So it’s only four tournaments. So it’s not like I was playing every week,” the American laughed.
“So that’s kind of how I look at it. But it feels great to win a title, especially on clay.”
The world number one didn’t have an easy Sunday though, with thunder rumbling and lightning flashing in the distance, it appeared as though the weather might continue to hold a grudge against the Italian capital — but luckily the skies remained shut and despite some wind, Williams and Keys were able to play their match without any interruption.
Hard to believe the weather's gonna hold up — thunder and lightning going off in the distance. #ibi16 pic.twitter.com/l0h2Ackq0J
— René Denfeld (@Renestance) May 15, 2016
During the opening stages, though, it was Keys who was able to get out of the starting block quicker, grabbing and early lead and having chances to consolidate for a 4-1 lead. Williams, on the other hand, took a little longer to adjust to the windy conditions on Campo Centrale — and also her opponent’s laser-like forehands that kept finding their goals.
“I think she’s such a powerful player,” the 34-year-old said said about her younger opponent. “Obviously, going in I knew that, but I was just trying. I think I was pretty much able to just get back what I could, you know, and all I was trying to do was just to go out there and be consistent, and, yeah, make my shots.”
The world number one was able to find her rhythm a little better on Keys’ return and broke straight back with neither player surrendering serve any further afterwards, sending the opener into a tiebreak. Keys did well to level the score to 5-5 after falling behind early, courtesy of a blistering forehand down the line, but ultimately Williams’ experience won out as she sealed the first set with a big first serve that her compatriot couldn’t return into court.
“I think I did a lot of things well. I think there were some things that I could have done better, obviously,” the 21-year-old Keys said in her post-match interview.
“But the first set was really a couple of points here or there.”
In the second set, however, it was Williams who pushed the foot harder on the gas pedal, breaking her opponent’s serve immediately with some fantastic scrambling to guide the ball past Keys at the net — from then on, Williams began to dictate proceedings and unlike the first set, the world number 24 was always forced to play catch-up, particularly as soon as she was down an early double break at 0-3.
“I mean, she really stepped up her game in the second set,” the 2015 Australian Open semifinalist explained. “It’s just one of those things where you kind of replay the match in your mind, think of the points here or there that you could fix, and try to take whatever you need to take from the match and then move on.”
Although Keys started swinging more freely on her return after falling behind early, she struggled to hold her own serve for the remainder of the match as Williams was going after her opponent’s second serves and elongated the rallies, often eliciting an error from Keys’ racquet — and while the younger American was able to deny Williams her first attempt at serving for the championships, she wasn’t able to prevent Williams from breaking her to capture the title.
2002, 2013, 2014, 2016@SerenaWilliams four-time @InteBNLdItalia champion! #ibi16 pic.twitter.com/niqNBAe0nE
— WTA (@WTA) May 15, 2016
Overall this has been a week that has put Serena Williams right on top of the shortlist for the French Open contenders — not that she was ever off of it, obviously.
“Well, I feel really good about (heading to the French Open),” the 2015 Roland Garros champion said.
“I mean, especially after my first few rounds. I started feeling better. I’m feeling pretty fit. So, yeah, I’m looking forward to it.”
Although she is defending champion, Williams doesn’t want to let anyone put more pressure on her than usual and wants to carry the positive vibes from Rome over to the French capital.
“I have tried to defend there once, twice, three times before. Didn’t quite work so well. But this year is different. I’m going to definitely go in there and I feel more calm and I don’t feel stress to, like, have to win.”
Throughout the week, Williams hasn’t dropped a set and was able to fight through a tough opening set against Christina McHale despite never playing her very best tennis but retaining a sense of patience for her game that was deserting her occasionally in the past few months.
” I think — yeah, I think my patience was really great. I wasn’t stressed out. I wasn’t rushing too much,” the American assessed after her week in Rome. “Basically more than anything I was able to do what I practiced, and I think that’s what really helped me out.”
But also for Keys, there were a lot of things to be pleased about this week, having made the biggest final of her career and coming a little more to terms with the slippery surface that hadn’t yielded too much success for her in the past — at least in Europe.
“I think having a couple of Top 10 wins this week was really big for me and playing people who have done very well in Roland Garros and just on clay in general,” Keys looked back at her week.
“But I think the biggest thing is just how calm I have stayed on court and really, even in tough situations, stayed calm and collected and just really focused on my game, and I feel like I’m just playing much smarter tennis.”
With the recap of the finals, our on-site coverage of the BNP Internazionali d’Italia concludes, but we will have some more pieces from the Roma treasure chest coming your way soon!