PALERMO, Italy - Next month, the long-awaited resumption of professional tennis will get going at the Palermo Ladies Open - a tournament that boasts one of the longest and richest histories on the WTA Tour.
A fixture on the calendar since 1990 - with the exception of a five-year period between 2014 and 2018 - the Sicilian capital has been a lynchpin of the ever-changing post-Wimbledon collection of International events (formerly Tiers III, IV and V). It's a part of the season that is sometimes overlooked: for a number of top players, it's an opportunity to decompress after the arduous journey through European clay and grass, before coming back refreshed for the North American hard courts. But for those who compete in it, these tournaments have never been short of narratives, dramatic tennis, or an early opportunity for future stars to hit milestones - and Palermo boasts a plethora of such moments.
First Titles: Stars In Waiting
Though only one Palermo champion has been ranked inside the Top 10 at the time of winning - Sara Errani in 2012 - it was a breakthrough tournament for three future Grand Slam champions. Mary Pierce and Anastasia Myskina both lifted their first WTA trophies here in 1991 and 1999 respectively, while Flavia Pennetta captured her seventh title in 2009.
The tournament's second edition found a 16-year-old Pierce belying her inexperience and World No.91 ranking to deliver a phenomenal performance across the week: the Frenchwoman conceded only 16 games in five matches, and nine of those were in her 6-4, 7-5 first-round upset of No.2 seed Federica Bonsignori. Thereafter, Pierce was near-untouchable, capping her run with her maiden Top 20 victory in the final - a 6-0, 6-3 rout of No.1 seed Sandra Cecchini. It would be the first of several such 'Peak Pierce' weeks over the course of the future two-time major champion's career - her infamous purple patches during which the quality of Pierce's striking was such that even the most illustrious opponent could barely muster games against her.
Eight years later in 1999, Palermo would be at the heart of an 18-year-old Myskina's surge into the Top 100. A qualifier ranked No.196, the Russian was playing just her second WTA main draw, having also qualified for Tashkent a month previously - a tournament that kickstarted a phenomenal summer for her. Between June and September, Myskina compiled a 30-4 win-loss record, including eight victories here to capture her maiden WTA title; over the course of the season, she rocketed from World No.293 to World No.65.
Having navigated qualifying without dropping a set, Myskina posted her first four Top 100 wins over the course of the week, including a first-round 7-6(5), 6-3 upset of No.8 seed Miriam Oremans and a dramatic 3-6, 7-6(3), 6-2 final defeat of future World No.22 Angeles Montolio. But it was Myskina's semifinal clash that would be the greatest foreshadowing: a 3-6, 6-3, 6-2 win over 17-year-old compatriot Elena Dementieva, then ranked World No.108. Less than five years later, the childhood friends would meet in the Roland Garros final, with Myskina winning again to become the first ever Russian Grand Slam champion.
Sicilian Streaks: Multiple Winners
Two of Palermo's first four champions would lift the trophy twice. Pierce, returning to the tournament as the No.1 seed in 1992, successfully defended her title for the loss of only one set - to No.2 seed Brenda Schultz-McCarthy in a 6-1, 6-7(3), 6-1 final. Indeed, the Frenchwoman ultimately compiled a 14-match winning streak here, ended in the 1993 final 6-3, 6-2 by Radka Bobkova - the Czech taking revenge for her first-round loss to Pierce the previous year, sealing her second career title with the only Top 20 victory of her career.
In 1994 and 1995, Irina Spirlea would also kickstart a future Top 10 career in Palermo, winning her first two titles in back-to-back editions of the tournament. The first of those was part of the Romanian's surge into the Top 50 in her first full year on tour; having made the fourth round of a Grand Slam for the first time two months previously at Roland Garros, Spirlea was well-placed to lift her maiden trophy on clay as the No.2 seed, edging No.1 seed Schultz-McCarthy in a 6-4, 1-6, 7-6(5) final - the only time the Palermo title has been decided by a final-set tiebreak.
The following year, Spirlea would successfully defend a title for the only time in her career, with her 1995 run highlighted by a tight quarterfinal defeat of home favorite and No.6 seed Silvia Farina 4-6, 6-2, 7-6(2), a 6-3, 6-1 semifinal win over future World No.7 Barbara Schett, and a 7-6(1), 6-2 final revenge over Sabine Hack, the German who had denied Spirlea in the Jakarta final in January that year. However, the future US Open semifinalist's winning streak came to a controversial, if historic end in the second round the following year: having been forced into a decider after losing a tight second-set tiebreak to Belgium's Stephanie de Ville, Spirlea became the first player ever to be disqualified from a WTA tournament after swearing in "perfect gutter Italian" at the umpire. "I was getting angry, I said a bad word - at last, I am first at something!" she joked later that year.
Few players can boast a record at any tournament like Anabel Medina Garrigues in Palermo, though. Over the course of a decade, the Spaniard made the Country Time Club courts her own, racking up an astonishing five titles there. In total, Medina Garrigues compiled a 33-5 record in Palermo, including an 18-match winning streak as she captured a consecutive hat-trick of trophies between 2004 and 2006.
It all started in 2001, though, when an 18-year-old Medina Garrigues captured her maiden title in the year she first cracked the Top 100. Ranked World No.72, she defeated two future Top 20 players, Eleni Daniilidou and No.2 seed Tatiana Panova, before overcoming No.7 seed Cristina Torrens Valero 6-4, 6-4 in the third most recent all-Spanish WTA Tour final. Injury prevented Medina Garrigues from defending her title in 2002, but a semifinal showing in 2003 bolstered her comeback to the Top 100 - and the following year, she embarked on her spell of invincibility.
Over the next three years, Medina Garrigues would drop just one set in Palermo - beating Anastasiya Yakimova 6-1, 2-6, 6-0 in the 2006 second round - while collecting victories over players such as Lucie Safarova (6-4, 6-4 in the 2006 semifinals), Flavia Pennetta (6-4, 6-4 in the 2004 final) and Roberta Vinci (7-6(3), 6-2 in the 2004 second round). Eventually, her streak was snapped in the 2008 semifinals by Ukraine's Mariya Koryttseva 6-2, 6-2 - but Medina Garrigues, who reached a peak ranking of World No.16 in May 2009, would come full circle in 2011, capturing the 11th and final title of her career with a 6-3, 6-2 final defeat of Polona Hercog at the tournament that had first made her a champion.
The late '00s and early '10s saw the rise to prominence of Italy's 'Fab Four', the golden generation of Flavia Pennetta, Francesca Schiavone, Sara Errani and Roberta Vinci - all of whom were Palermo stalwarts, and three of whom became champions on home soil here. Of the 11 all-Italian WTA Tour finals in the Open Era, two have occurred in Palermo.
It was Errani who would find the most success, lifting the trophy twice: in 2008, the future World No.5 captured her maiden title at the age of 21, defeating Flavia Pennetta and Mariya Koryttseva in the last two rounds, and she would reclaim her crown in 2012 with a 6-1, 6-3 final win over No.8 seed Barbora Strycova.
Errani would reach four Palermo finals in total - the most of any player in tournament history aside from Anabel Medina Garrigues - but ironically, both of her final losses came as defending champion to a fellow Italian. In 2009, future US Open winner Pennetta avenged her defeat the previous year to dismiss Errani 6-1, 6-2 to claim her seventh career title (having already beaten Vinci 7-5, 6-1 in the second round in another foreshadowing of a future Grand Slam final). In 2013, it was Vinci's turn to end Errani's title defence, triumphing 6-3, 3-6, 6-3 to lift her ninth trophy.
Foreshadowing the Future
Mary Pierce and Anastasia Myskina went on to the most success out of all of Palermo's first-time titlists - but there have been plenty more players for whom the tournament was a key milestone on their road to the top. In 1996, a 20-year-old Barbara Schett defeated Sabine Hack 6-3, 6-3 in the final to lift the first of her three career titles; the Austrian would go on to reach the US Open quarterfinals in 1999 and a career-high ranking of World No.7.
The following year, Schett fell in an epic semifinal by Sandrine Testud, who dethroned the defending champion 0-6, 6-3, 7-6(3) before going on to claim her own maiden title over Elena Makarova 7-5, 6-3 in the final at the age of 25. Testud would be a noteworthy late bloomer on tour: the Frenchwoman would go on to reach World No.9 and two Grand Slam quarterfinals, at the 1997 US Open and 1998 Australian Open - and 20 of her 21 Top 10 wins would come after she turned 25, including brilliant triumphs over Monica Seles, Serena Williams, Justine Henin, Lindsay Davenport, Jennifer Capriati and Venus Williams - the last three, famously, in the week they first ascended to World No.1.
Over a decade later, Testud's career would be mirrored by another first-time Palermo champion, Kaia Kanepi. The Estonian also captured her maiden title here at the age of 25, ending the home dreams of three Italians in a row - Sara Errani 6-2, 6-2 in the quarterfinals, Romina Oprandi 6-3, 6-2 in the semifinals and Flavia Pennetta 6-4, 6-3 in the final - in 2010. Like Testud, she has carved out a career as a perennial threat to the elite, despite her own peak ranking of World No.15, and particularly on the big stage: seven of Kanepi's 11 Top 10 wins have come at Grand Slams, including defeats of Simona Halep, Angelique Kerber and Caroline Wozniacki.
On the subject of Halep, the Romanian is one of three future World No.1s who have previously competed in Palermo. In the reigning Wimbledon champion's case, she made one appearance here, falling to No.2 seed Aravane Rezai 7-5, 4-6, 6-2 in the 2010 first round - and this year, she is due to compete here again for the first time since then. Back in 1998, Jennifer Capriati also played in Palermo: ranked World No.133 and still very much on the comeback trail, the American defeated Lenka Nemeckova and Rita Grande to make one of only two WTA quarterfinals that year, falling to Barbara Rittner 2-6, 6-4, 6-2 in the last eight. An 18-year-old Justine Henin also made an appearance in 2000, ending No.3 seed Anastasia Myskina's title defence in the first round 7-5, 6-2 in a matchup of future Roland Garros winners, and reaching the quarterfinals before losing to eventual champion Henrieta Nagyova.