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By Richard Pagliaro | Wednesday, May 12, 2021

 
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Nadia Podoroska upset her tennis hero Serena Williams 7-6(6), 7-5 in Rome spoiling the 39-year-old American's 1,000th match in her first appearance since Melbourne.

Photo credit: Filippo Monteforte/Getty

Launching her comeback on Rome's red clay, Serena Williams hit a major milestone playing her 1,000th career match.

An inspired Nadia Podoroska seized celebration for herself.

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Facing her tennis idol for the first time, the 44th-ranked Podoroska shocked a rusty Williams 7-6(6), 7-5 to reach the Internazionali BNL d'Italia round of 16.

Spreading the court creatively with her forehand, Podoroska withstood a fierce second-set surge from the four-time Olympic gold-medal champion and kept calm closing match she called "an honor" to play.


"It's special win. As I said, she's a great athlete," Podoroska said. "She did too many things for our sport. It's history.

"So for me it's very special. But most of all, I'm happy the way I played. Like, I felt again comfortable on clay, on my game, and that's most important for me."




It is Podoroska's third career Top 10 win, including a a stunning 6-2, 6-4 upset of fifth-ranked Elina Svitolina in the Roland Garros quarterfinals last October.

"She has a good game, for sure, obviously," Williams said of Podoroska. "She's very consistent."

This was Williams' first match since her 6-3, 6-4 loss to Naomi Osaka in the Australian Open semifinals last February and just her second clay-court match in a year.

Hours after Jessica Pegula saved set points bouncing the second-ranked Osaka out of Rome 7-6(2), 6-2, Podoroska played with conviction and clarity from the outset against Williams in her first clay-court tournament since her spectacular run in Paris.

Signs of rust seeped across the red clay as Williams struggled to land her first serve connecting on just 48 percent, saw her control of the running forehand fluctuate throughout the match and made some miscues in her transition game in closing points yet still had shots in both sets.

"Even sliding and confidence with that, with movement, and just not wanting to break my ankle when I moved," Williams said of her comeback challenge. "That's always like a little struggle in the first two matches, and then I'm raring to go.

"Yeah, that's kind of where I was struggling a little bit, and just final shots. Like, I had a lot of opportunities to win, like, final shots and just kind of missing those. Overall, it was good for me to play such a clay court player on clay today, but it's a little frustrating. But it's all right. It is what it is."

The 39-year-old Williams wasn't at her best yet still asserted her aggression roaring through three straight shutout games to level the second set only to see Podoroska regain stability and answer with a resounding run through eight of the last nine points to close conquest of her tennis idol.



In just her second career Grand Slam appearance last fall, Podoroska made history as the first female qualifier to reach the Roland Garros semifinals.

Today, Podoroska showed no fear facing her tennis idol for the first time. 

The 5'6" baseliner from Rosario, Argentina was willing to stand toe-to-toe with the four-time Rome champion, frequently earned the edge in forehand exchanges in the opening set and sometimes wrong-footed the former No. 1 sending strikes behind her.

"I think it was a very good match, high level," Podoroska said. "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."

Adhesive taping wrapping her right thigh, Podoroska showed grit grinding through a tough hold at 30 to even after eight games.

Mixing in her slice backhand, Podoroska cracked a crosscourt forehand into the corner eliciting an error for double break point in the ninth game. Continuing to attack the former world No. 1 in crosscourt exchanges, Podoroska provoked another forehand error breaking for 5-4.




Serving for the set, Podoroska, who had burned Williams with with the crosscourt forehand, rapped a forehand winner down the line for 30-all. 

Digging in, Williams imposed her presence going toe-to-toe in a crackling baseline exchange to draw the error. Williams provoked a shanked backhand breaking back for 5-5.

  Still struggling to find her first serve, Williams batted aside a break point with a backhand winner. Sliding a slice ace out wide, Williams erupted with a shout scraping through to hold for 6-5 after 51 minutes.  Podoroska pumped her first ace off the T to force the tie breaker.

Varying some short-angled forehand with deeper forehand drives, Podoroska raced out to a 5-1 lead in the breaker.  Serving with a triple set point lead at 6-3, Podoroska saw Williams elevate her game and erase all three set points. Reading the Argentinian's forehand down the line, Williams cracked a clean running forehand crosscourt for 6-6.

That strike seemed to give Williams all the momentum, but she didn't fully commit to a forehand down the line and missed it wide.

On her fourth set point, Podoroska froze Williams with a forehand down the line seizing a fiercely-fought 64 minute opening set.

The Argentinian's smooth movement and stinging forehand posed problems for Williams, who couldn't find her serving groove in the opener. Williams served just 48 percent and paid the price winning only 10 of 26 second-serve points (38 percent).

Self-assured shot selection and a couple of gifts from her opponent helped Podoroska to dig out of a love-30 hole hole to hold for 3-2 when Williams slapped a smash into net than whacked a low-percentage backhand return off the WTA signage affixed to net.

Empowered by that hold, Podoroska surged through nine straight points breaking at love for 4-2 when Williams coughed up her third double fault. Another forehand missed the mark and Williams wailed in frustration dropping to a squat as if recoiling from her miscue. The 23-time Grand Slam champion rose up for a late-set stand. 

Serving for a monumental win at 5-3, a jittery Podoroska played one of her poorest service games of the match over-hitting a forehand then slapping a shot into net to gift back the break at love.

An energized William relocated her first serve and was landing her first strike with point-ending menace bursting through 12 of 13 points as she slammed down a love hold level after 10 games.

Reeling from suffering three love losses in a row, Podoroska figured to shrink from the moment, right?

Wrong. Podoroska reset and held for 6-5 with a gutsy second serve deep in the box.

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In a set of ebbs and flows, Podoroska rose at the right time launching herself into a forehand winner down the line like a woman riding a wave as she earned triple-match point. Podoroska ran through eight of the final nine points wrapping up a historic win in one hour, 58 minutes.

Next up for Podoroska is a round-of-16 meeting vs. Petra Martic with the winner facing either Pegula or 33rd-ranked Russian Ekaterina Alexandrova in the Rome quarterfinals.

While Williams likely won't be satisfied with her serve or some sporadic shot-making moving forward in the court, she can draw from the positives. Playing a Roland Garros semifinalist in a physical match, she moved pretty well, looked fit and competed with vigor despite some first-serve and forehand lapses.



Now, comes the schedule decisions.

As she continues her quest to win her 24th major and match Margaret Court's all-time Grand Slam record, will Williams opt for more match play on red clay in preparation for Roland Garros, which starts on May 30th?

Or will she amp up the training and gear up for a run at Wimbledon where she's a seven-time champion coming off four consecutive Wimbledon finals?

Those are questions Serena, coach Patrick Mouratoglou and her team will be assessing.

"It's tough to have a first match on clay," Williams said. "It was definitely kind of good to go the distance and to try to be out there, but clearly I can do legions better.

"I just gotta get there. Maybe I do need a few more matches, so I'm going to try to figure that out with my coach and my team and see what we would like to do. But, yeah, I just feel like it's different. I have been training for months, but it feels definitely different on clay to make that last adjustment."

 

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