PRAGUE, Czech Republic - No.2 seed Elisabetta Cocciaretto underlined her potential as one of the future clay-court stars of the WTA Tour by reaching the biggest final of her career to date at the Prague 125K, ending the in-form No.12 seed Nadia Podoroska's run 6-4, 6-3 in one hour and 21 minutes.
The scale of the 19-year-old's achievement cannot be underestimated. The tournament's expanded 128-player draw presented an unusually monumental challenge for its competitors - effectively an alternate Grand Slam compressed into half the time, with parity amongst the field and several dangerous unseeded floaters further adding to the difficulty for the seeded players. Three former Grand Slam finalists - Sara Errani, Eugenie Bouchard and Sabine Lisicki - started as the most high-profile names; none survived until the quarterfinals, with their past achievements meaningless against the hungry young opponents who took them out.
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Yet Cocciaretto has, remarkably, held her seed, navigating her own difficult draw with intelligence and aplomb. Podoroska in particular has been in stellar form in 2020, having begun the season with a 14-match winning streak culminating in a run to the Newport Beach 125K semifinals; this week, the Argentinian had yet to drop a set en route to the last four.
The reasons why were immediately evident as Podoroska powered to an immediate 3-0 lead. The 23-year-old ruthlessly snatched a 40-0 lead in Cocciaretto's opening service game away from her, slamming a backhand return winner to break serve - and then two games later another backhand down the line to move up a double break. Podoroska's aggressive intent and alacrity in moving forward to put away drive volleys put her firmly in the driving seat, and a smattering of early double faults from Cocciaretto didn't help her cause.
But the Italian has shown a rare ability to think on her feet all week, adapting and adjusting to different challenges in order to turn matches around. The breadth of her game has also been impressive: Cocciaretto is comfortable both sliding and scampering around the court to resist power with superb defence, and taking charge with offensive point construction herself, showing little fear of finishing points at net.
The flipside of Podoroska's ultra-aggressive strategy was the World No.165 was just as liable to hit herself out of commanding scoreboard positions, and once she gave up one of the breaks with careless errors, that foothold was all Cocciaretto needed to begin clawing her way back. The Palermo quarterfinalist regained the second break in spectacular fashion: bringing up break point by redirecting a Podoroska drive volley down the line and sealing it with an angled smash.
From this point on, the Podoroska tightrope began to tilt far more towards errors than winners. Cocciaretto was superb at anticipating the 13-time ITF titlist's heaviest shots and redirecting them back into the open court, coming up with one such forehand winner to move to set point in the ninth game; it was sealed at the first attempt as another Podoroska forehand went awry.
Continuing to go for her shots, Podoroska had an opportunity to regain the advantage at the start of the second set - but saw a break point chance come and go amidst a flurry of backhand errors. Having escaped danger, Cocciaretto sensed her own moment to keep the pressure on, upping the ante on her forehand to find a pair of excellent winners en route to breaking for 2-0.
In contrast to the first set, which saw seven breaks of serve in total, that would be the decisive sole break in the second act. Both players improved significantly in the service department across the sets, with Podoroska's first serve percentage increasing from 59% to 81% and Cocciaretto's from 67% to 90%; indeed, the teenager would miss only one first serve in the second set while still maintaining a 75% winning percentage behind it.
These numbers were enough to see her maintain her lead to the finishing line: though a pair of successful dropshots from Podoroska in the final game were a window into a potentially successful alternate tactic for the Pan American Games gold medallist, but it was too little, too late: serving for the match, Cocciaretto came up with a brace of solid winners before, by contrast, a pair of unforced errors off the ground from Podoroska on the final two points sealed the match.
The final will see Cocciaretto taking on No.18 seed Kristina Kucova for the title. The 30-year-old Slovak, a former World No.71, dismissed the unseeded Ivana Jorovic 6-3, 6-1 in just one hour and four minutes in the day's second semifinal to move into the biggest final of her career. Kucova, the 2007 US Open junior champion, has reached two WTA Tour semifinals, at Bucharest 2014 and Montréal 2016, but her highest-level title to date came at last year's Dothan ITF W80 event.