Serena Williams turns 40 later this fall. She’s won 73 WTA singles titles and more than $94 million in prize money. So please forgive her when she’s sometimes a little dusty with the details, if there’s a been-there, done-that tone to her interviews.
As the 78th edition of the Internazionali BNL D’Italia was getting underway in Rome, Serena was asked about Nadia Podoroska, a surprise French Open semifinalist last year and a potential first-match opponent Wednesday.
“Everyone gears up for top-10 players, and so if I'm in the top 10 I will be ready. Am I? I don't even know where I am, but somewhere.”
For the record, Serena is ranked No.8 in the world, but she won’t be taking her opponent, the 44th-ranked player, lightly.
“[Podoroska] definitely knows how to play,” Serena said to the media Monday in Rome. “She plays with a lot of power. I was watching her earlier this year actually so it was good. I was able to see her game a little bit.”
Serena was smiling when commenting on her own ranking, but no matter what it is, her form is one of the leading questions of this second of back-to-back WTA 1000 events. What will her game look like after more than 10 weeks off following her run to the semifinals at the Australian Open?
Since winning the 2017 Australian Open, she’s been seeking her 24th Grand Slam singles title, which would tie her with Margaret Court for the all-time lead.
Serena’s only appearances in 2021 were playing two tournaments in Melbourne. She won three matches before granting World No.1 Ashleigh Barty a walkover the Yarra Valley Classic semifinal. And then she advanced to the semifinal of the Australian Open, beating Aryna Sabalenka and Simona Halep along the way, before losing to eventual champion Naomi Osaka.
It was all good for an 8-1 record – and then Serena went off the WTA grid. She trained on clay in the United States and, for the past 2½ weeks, at Patrick Mouratoglou’s tennis academy in France.
“We had an intense several weeks of training – very intense,” Serena said. “So that’s kind of what happened for me.
“I feel like I’m good. I’m in Rome. I’m going to have some good matches here hopefully, and then I will be at another Grand Slam, which always makes me excited. So I think either way I’ll be ready.”
Even without fans in the stands?
“I have been getting used to the crowds not being there, so in a way it's kind of -- it's a different experience,” Serena said. “I think we can always go back and say I remember that time we had to play without a crowd or whatever. That was, you know, really interesting.
“So I just look at everything as an experience. It will be hard without the Roman fans, because they are special, but it's always something.”
Red clay is one of her strong suits; Serena is a three-time French Open winner and a four-time champion in Rome, winning in 2002, 2013, 2014 and 2016.
Her projected quarterfinal opponent is Osaka. The largest obstacles? No.10 Belinda Bencic could be there in the round of 16 for Williams and, for Osaka, No.13 Jennifer Brady.
Serena said she is ready to go.
“It’s good to start fresh,” she added, “but it’s also hard to start fresh.”
In other words, as always with Serena, we’ll just have to wait and see. Here are a few more tantalizing questions looming this week in Rome:
Notable Day 2 matchups
No.12 Garbine Muguruza vs. Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova: She’s not seeded, but Pavlyuchenkova is ranked No.30 and coming off a fabulous showing in Madrid. She beat four top 25 players – Madison Keys, Karolina Pliskova, Jennifer Brady and Karolina Muchova – before falling in the semifinals to eventual champion Aryna Sabalenka. This is Muguruza’s first 2021 look at red clay after withdrawing from Madrid with a left thigh injury.
No. 14: Elise Mertens vs. Veronika Kudermetova: The new world No.1 in doubles has her hands full in this one. Kudermetova won the Volvo Car Open on green clay last month in Charleston, had a good run in Istanbul (semifinals) and is 22-10 for the year. Mertens (20-6) made the Istanbul final and the quarters at Madrid.
Sloane Stephens vs. Madison Keys: This All-American matchup may look familiar; Stephens has won four of five encounters, including the most recent in Charleston, 6-4, 6-4. Stephens was the third lucky loser into the draw after Muchova withdrew.
Is Naomi Osaka ready to take the next step and dominate on the dirt the way she does on hardcourts?
Since winning the Australian Open, the world No. 2 has played only two matches on clay, falling to ascendant Karolina Muchova in the second round at Madrid.
Osaka was asked if clay is more taxing physically or mentally?
“I would say for me mentally,” she said. “At the beginning when I first started training on clay, physically it was definitely very hard, but I’m the type that adapts quite quickly physically. So I would just say mentally it’s a bit harder because you have to structure the points differently. I also think there are bad bounces and stuff. I get quite frustrated.”
Can anyone stop World No.1 Ashleigh Barty and No. 4 Aryna Sabalenka from meeting like this?
They could, incredibly, play for the fourth time in 46 days in the quarterfinals. This is the same matchup we saw in the Miami quarterfinals (won by Barty) and the Stuttgart (Barty) and Madrid final (Sabalenka). But that matchup is hardly a foregone conclusion.
There are a lot of moving parts in this section. Consider the first-round match between No. 14 seed Elise Mertens and Veronika Kudermetova, your 2021 Volvo Car Open champion. This is a rematch of the recent semifinal in Istanbul and the winner could face Barty in the round of 16.
Sabalenka could have an even tougher road, potentially Coco Gauff or Maria Sakkari in round of 16.
Barty, for one, doesn’t sound worried about overplaying.
“I think scheduling for probably the last four or five years of my career has always been something that I have tried to stick to,” she said. “I like to commit to tournaments. I like to play those tournaments.
“At times we have had periods where we have gone back to back to back in tournaments, but this stretch has certainly been pretty full on and really exciting. Been really nice just to play matches again. I think getting into the swing of things, used to playing week after week is important. Mentally and physically I feel good.”