Welcome back to Clay Chronicles, where wtatennis.com will take a look back at some of the most memorable matches from the clay seasons of the past five years. After recapping Charleston's classics, Stuttgart's standards, Madrid’s magic moments, our retrospective heads to the Eternal City to recount some of the best matches from the recent editions of the Internazionali BNL d’Italia. For 2019, we head to Stadio Pietrangeli at the end of a torrid day to celebrate the shotmaking feast that was Marketa Vondrousova's third-round defeat of Daria Kasatkina, part of a surge that led the Czech teenager to the Roland Garros final the following month.
2015: Maria Sharapova d. Carla Suárez Navarro, final
2016: Madison Keys d. Barbora Strycova, quarterfinals
2017: Elina Svitolina d. Simona Halep, final
2018: Simona Halep d. Maria Sharapova, semifinals
HOW THEY GOT THERE: Daria Kasatkina and Marketa Vondrousova were two of the most intriguing unseeded players in the 2019 Rome draw - for contrasting reasons, as their season trajectories were taking them in opposite directions. World No.21 Kasatkina had started the year as a freshly minted Top 10 player following a breakthrough 2018 season, in which the Russian had lifted the Moscow trophy, made finals in Dubai and Indian Wells, and reached her first two Grand Slam quarterfinals at Roland Garros and Wimbledon.
At a career high of World No.10 in January, Kasatkina - whose breadth of repertoire and ability to pull off crowd-pleasing miracle shots had cemented her as one to watch for sheer entertainment value as much as her potential results - seemed poised to consolidate this progress. But coming out on the losing end of a three-hour, seven-minute epic in Brisbane against World No.283 Kimberly Birrell had got Kasatkina's 2019 off on the wrong foot, and it had not got much better by the time Rome rolled around.
Coming into the tournament, the 22-year-old's season win-loss record was a meagre 3-9 - but there were a few signs of life as she returned to her beloved clay. A month prior, Kasatkina had notched up her first Top 20 win of the year over Elise Mertens in Stuttgart, and in Rome she delivered back-to-back victories for the first time since the previous October, defeating qualifier Irina-Camelia Begu 6-2, 7-6(5) and the perennially dangerous Katerina Siniakova 2-6, 6-4, 6-1.
Vondrousova, on the other hand, was soaring in 2019. The Czech teenager had overcome injuries and a mini-slump to end 2018 at World No.67, exactly the same year-end ranking as 2017, but - playing a carefully selected schedule - had clearly elevated her game to a new level. Since February, she had won four matches in each event she had played, notching up runner-up showings in Budapest and Istanbul as well as her first two Premier Mandatory quarterfinals in Indian Wells and Miami.
Coming into Rome as the World No.44, the 19-year-old boasted a 19-5 season win-loss record, with her victims including an eye-catching upset of World No.2 Simona Halep in the fourth round of Indian Wells, as well as defeats of Elise Mertens, Jelena Ostapenko and Kasatkina herself in the second round of Indian Wells - a 6-2, 6-1 rout that emphasized the directions each was headed in.
Nor was Vondrousova showing any signs of letting up in Italy. Indeed, squeezing through two tight three-setters had only further demonstrated her confidence on big points as she had come from 2-5 down in the final set to overcome Barbora Strycova 1-6, 6-4, 7-6(4) in the first round and then reprised her Indian Wells triumph over Halep 2-6, 7-5, 6-3 in the second round.
WHAT HAPPENED: By the time third-round play got under way, this year's edition of the tournament was as much a physical test as a mental one after the Eternal City was beset by seemingly eternal rain. A Wednesday washout meant a stacked slate of matches on Thursday as most players, including Vondrousova and Kasatkina, had to pull double duty to set the quarterfinals.
By the time the pair took to Stadio Pietrangeli - technically Foro Italico's second court, but arguably its most picturesque and atmospheric - fans were already reeling from non-stop drama, not least Vondrousova's own comeback upset of the previous two years' runner-up Simona Halep. Yet in terms of quality, both would deliver maybe the best show of the day, lighting up the cold, damp evening with electric shotmaking that had the Pietrangeli crowds chanting the players' names.
The signature Vondrousova backhand dropshot would be one of the most significant strokes of the 2019 clay season: essayed almost casually and with little warning, with an arc that initially seemed too high but loaded with so much spin and placed with such accuracy that, time and time again, it would die just over the net as her opponent flailed in vain. She wasted no time in wheeling it out, winning the first point with a perfect example of it and thence building a 4-1 lead with the first break.
Kasatkina, though, has never been short of finesse herself, and matched her younger opponent with similar displays of touch as she gradually pegged her back. The Russian would reel off four games in a row to move into the lead herself; serving at 5-4, she would come within two points of completing the comeback and taking the set. Vondrousova, however, demonstrated her knack of rising to the occasion on big points, though, breaking back by unleashing her heavy lefty forehand crosscourt and coming forwards to knock off the volley - and from there, took the momentum to snatch the opening act herself.
Both players had already won a three-setter earlier in the day, but it was Vondrousova, habitually laconic on court, who seemed to falter physically at times. A tight three-break sequence to start the second set put Kasatkina ahead again, and from there the 22-year-old took control.
Stronger serving was key: though Kasatkina maintained a high first serve percentage throughout the match of 87%, and this was at its peak in a second set during which she missed only one first serve, it was also more efficient during this passage of play - netting her 65% of the points behind it, compared with 53% in the first set and 46% in the third. Playing with energy and confidence, Kasatkina captured the double break in the seventh game and, this time, served out the set with little drama.
As the decider got under way, some of the rallies reached absurdly high levels. The fourth game in particular saw Kasatkina retrieve an angled half-volley tweener - only to lose the point anyway after Vondrousova pounded a forehand pass past her, one of the Czech's 33 winners of the day to her opponent's 23. Ultimately, it was Vondrousova's willingness to shorten the points - perhaps in order to save her tiring legs - that would pay off: though Kasatkina would play her role in some spectacular points, it was increasingly a passive one - something that would not cut it against the 2017 Biel champion's renewed accuracy.
Seemingly impregnable on every big point, Vondrousova gradually built a 5-1 lead - and though she was unable to serve out the match, this was a minor setback as the teenager broke to 30 in the very next game for a 7-5, 2-6, 6-2 victory, taking her first match point after a Kasatkina backhand sailed long after two hours and 13 minutes.
WHAT THEY SAID: "The crowd was amazing," said Vondrousova after hearing her name resound around Pietrangeli - the second time that day she had been buoyed by the audience's energy. Though she admitted it had been tough physically, it was this that had enabled her to push through: "I just kept fighting for every point - I was cramping at the end and I was so tired but I was just, like, keep playing every ball, every point, you have to play."
Vondrousova also ascribed her 2019 surge to a "great off-season" and a new coach since the previous year, Jan Hernych. "We're working really well, and I think that's the main thing," she said. "I have very good confidence now. Everything in my game works when I feel like this - I'm serving good, I'm moving well, of course my dropshots too. But you need both hands and speed!"
WHAT IT MEANT: After her exertions, Vondrousova had little left in the tank to go further in Rome, falling 6-3, 3-6, 6-1 to a surging Johanna Konta in the quarterfinals the following day. But, having nonetheless underlined her status as the most exciting rising star on tour in the first half of the year with a fifth consecutive quarterfinal-or-better finish, the Czech would live up to it in style on the big stage at Roland Garros.
Unseeded, Vondrousova nonetheless flexed on a series of higher-ranked opponents with a series of dominant performances. She would coolly take apart fellow teenage phenomenon Anastasia Potapova; experienced claycourters Carla Suárez Navarro and Anastasija Sevastova; previous nemesis Petra Martic, to whom she had lost all four previous meetings; and, in the semifinals, avenge her Rome loss to Konta to become the first teenage Grand Slam finalist since Caroline Wozniacki at the 2009 US Open.
Vondrousova would lose out to Ashleigh Barty there, but the cruellest blow was yet to come. Having rocketed into the Top 20, she barely got a chance to build on her form before hurting her left wrist during practice before Wimbledon. A first-round exit to Madison Brengle ensued, and subsequently a seven-month hiatus from the Tour. In September, Vondrousova announced that she would undergo surgery; after returning to action in January, she compiled a 3-5 win-loss record before the COVID-19 pandemic put tennis on pause.
As for Kasatkina, the glimmer of a revival provided by her Rome run turned out to be all too brief. With her confidence continuing to ebb, the Russian would not win consecutive matches again until October, when she salvaged her season with a Beijing quarterfinal showing - though that effort couldn't sugarcoat an overall win-loss record of 13-21 and a year-end ranking that had plummeted to World No.69.
Kasatkina had not played beneath Premier level throughout her 2019 slump, but dropping to International level paid dividends at the start of this year: in March, she would reach her first semifinal in 17 months at the inaugural Lyon tournament. Unluckily for her, though, that would be the last week of competition before the pandemic struck.