World No.1 Ashleigh Barty added another win to her rapidly growing 2021 tally on Thursday, defeating Veronika Kudermetova 6-3, 6-3 to reach the Internazionali BNL d'Italia quarterfinals.
The Australian notched her Tour-leading 27th match-win of the season with her one-hour and 21-minute victory over the World No.28, booking a spot in the elite eight in Rome for the very first time in her career.
"I think once I walked out there, it was a bit of a 'wow' factor," Barty told the press, after contesting a match on the center court in Rome for the first time. "Pretty impressive center court, took some time to get used to that."
"Without a doubt, happy with how we were able to tactically move about that match today and kind of stick to what we hoped would work and be able to execute," Barty added.
20 winners by Barty, including nine aces, and four breaks of serve helped her ease past the rising Russian. Kudermetova, who won her first career WTA singles title in Charleston last month, took just her third loss on clay this season after going 1-for-7 on break points.
Top seed Barty is up to 13-2 on clay so far in 2021. Barty defeated Aryna Sabalenka to claim her third title of the season on the indoor clay of Stuttgart last month, and also reached the final in Madrid last week before falling in another championship match against Sabalenka.
After falling behind an early break, Barty reeled off five straight games en route to 5-2. In that game, the top seed held three set points, but each of those times, Kudermetova forced an error to keep herself in the running, and eventually held for 5-3 with an ace.
However, Barty was not deterred, firing two aces in the next game, including on her fourth set point, to claim the opening frame. The Australian won three-quarters of her first-service points during her first-set exploits.
Barty swept to the early lead in the second set as well, as a wide miscue by Kudermetova gave the World No.1 an early break for 2-1. Barty closed out her next two services games with aces as she built her lead, then garnered her second break of the set in the final game after a lob on match point proved too much for the Russian to handle.
Barty, who is currently enjoying her 75th week at World No.1, now lines up her first-ever meeting with surging American teenager Coco Gauff, who dispatched Sabalenka earlier on Thursday. Gauff prevented Barty from facing Sabalenka for a third consecutive event with a straight-set upset of the new World No.4.
"Coco has shown that she loves to bring her best tennis against the players that challenge her the most," Barty said. "She's played an exceptional tournament thus far. She's got the ability to take the game on. She's aggressive, she can run, she can trust her legs.
"I think it's going to be important for me to try to get the match back on my terms as often as possible. I know when they're in her patterns, the way she likes to play, she's extremely dangerous and very good at what she does. I think it's going to be a new challenge, a clean slate for both of us."
Former World No.1 Karolina Pliskova also clinched a spot in the quarterfinals, as the No.9 seed moved past qualifier Vera Zvonareva, 7-5, 6-3 in an hour and 36 minutes.
Pliskova, the Rome champion in 2019 and a runner-up to Simona Halep last year, bolstered her win-loss record at the event to 13-5 with her victory over former World No.2 Zvonareva, a Rome semifinalist back in 2004 and 2005.
"I think [Zvonareva is] a big fighter," Pliskova told the press, after her win. "I think she's now back at a certain level, which is quite difficult to beat."
"Definitely I had to win that match because she's not going to give anything for free," Pliskova continued. "That's what I know. Also I remember from the past how she played."
Zvonareva had upset Pliskova in their only prior encounter, at 2018 Moscow, but Pliskova turned the tables at a tournament where she has had substantial recent success. For her second match in a row, the big-serving Czech supported her sterling deliveries with excellent returning, winning exactly two-thirds of points off of Zvonareva's second serve.
Two-time Grand Slam finalist Zvonareva notched a massive win over another top Czech, Petra Kvitova, in the previous round, and her performance this week means she is projected to return to the Top 100 of the WTA singles rankings on Monday. But the Russian saw her run come to an end against Pliskova, as her eight winners were outpaced by 19 unforced errors.
Powerful Pliskova earned an early 2-1 lead by knocking off two straight games with divine dropshot winners, but that was simply a precursor to a returner’s paradise in the first set. Seven of the 12 games in the opening frame went against serve, including when Pliskova served for the one-set lead at 5-4.
However, sturdy hitting from the forehand side gave Pliskova one more break and a second chance to serve out the set at 6-5. The second time around, Pliskova went back to the well and fired a series of sterling serves to reach triple set point, and she used another error-forcing serve to convert her first chance and eke out the one-set advantage.
Pliskova got out of trouble at 2-1 in the second set, saving four break points in that game to maintain level footing. In another protracted game at 3-3, Zvonareva was less successful, as Pliskova took her fifth break point of that battle with a forehand crosscourt winner to jump ahead 4-3.
Boosted by that break, Pliskova set her sights on the victory, and a rally forehand winner gave the Czech a match point on Zvonareva’s serve at 5-3. One final forehand winner closed out the service break and the match, sweeping Pliskova into the Rome quarterfinals for the fourth time in the last five years.
World No.25 Petra Martic made her way into the quarterfinals as well, as the Croat overcame Argentina's Nadia Podoroska 3-6, 6-1, 6-2 in their round-of-16 clash.
It will be a first quarterfinal appearance in Rome for Martic, as she stopped Podoroska in a hair under two hours. Martic was particularly clutch on her second-service, as she won 76 percent of those points to assist her in saving nine of the 12 break points she faced.
"Today was a tough one," Martic said, in her post-match press conference. "I started slow again. The last couple of matches I started 3-0, 4-0 down. That's definitely something I need to pay attention to, start the match a bit sharper from my side. I think it took my rhythm a bit too long. That was one thing I was not happy with today.
"But I'm really proud with the way I picked up and I just kept on fighting. Even in the first set, I thought I had some chances to get back in it fully. From the second set on, I feel like I played my best tennis so far this year."
Podoroska, who vanquished Serena Williams in the previous round, was broken five times in the last two sets as her trek through the Internazionali BNL d'Italia came to a close.
Martic will now take on another unseeded player, Jessica Pegula, for a prestigious spot in the semifinals. Martic brings a 3-1 head-to-head lead over Pegula into that matchup.