This week started off with a stacked field. There was World No.1 Ashleigh Barty and Madrid winner Aryna Sabalenka. Simona Halep and Elina Svitolina came into Rome with strong aspirations. And let's not forget about Naomi Osaka and, yes, the return of Serena Williams.
But the truth is Sunday's final shouldn't come as too much of a surprise. Iga Swiatek is as savvy as they come on red clay, and there is something about the courts of the Internazionali BNL d'Italia that her opponent, Karolina Pliskova, thrives on.
So with one match to go, who will walk away with a new WTA 1000-level title? Two of our clay-court experts, Jason Juzwiak and Courtney Nguyen, make their case:
Off the eye test alone, you might not necessarily expect the booming power game of Karolina Pliskova to fare well on the slower clay of Rome year after year. But here she is, into the final for the third straight season after being crowned champion in 2019 and a runner-up showing last year. What’s her secret?
“Habit,” Pliskova responded succinctly Friday, with a smile.
Additional explanation might not be required. Pliskova, who is 15-3 in Rome over the past five years, comes to the event and racks up wins without too much stress.
For example, while facing three match points against Jelena Ostapenko in the quarterfinals, Pliskova said she “got a bit relaxed. I was like, ‘OK, it's almost over.’ So I played a bit better, served a bit better.”
Simple as that? Perhaps she keeps her own expectations muted as well, which allows her to play with more comfort and freedom in Rome. She kept that up Saturday with another three-set win, this time against Petra Martic, who had beaten Pliskova in both their two previous meetings on clay courts.
“There are some weeks where I just feel better no matter in which situation I am, in which shape I am,” Pliskova said, reviewing her Rome successes. “I think this is one of them.”
Of course, there are technical keys to this repeat run. Pliskova, renowned as one of the world’s best servers, has been returning with gusto this week. Before Rome, she won only 41 percent of her return points this season. In her first three matches this week, she was 10 percentage points better.
Her return bore fruit in the semifinals against Martic. Pliskova won just 29 percent of return points in the second set, where she said she was “a bit too much frustrated.” But in the first and third sets, which she dominated, she won 56 percent of points on return.
With Iga Swiatek up next, Pliskova needs to keep all of these parts in working order. Swiatek has already proved she can reach the pinnacle of success on red clay: a Roland Garros title, which the Polish teenager won last year.
But, as Pliskova said, “the tournaments where I obviously had success in the past, I'm always feeling much better and more confident.”
If she simply stays comfortable and confident, the trophy might be hers again. -- Juzwiak
It's not that Iga Swiatek can't play on all surfaces. Quite the contrary. She captured her first hardcourt title by demolishing the field at the Adelaide International. She lost just 22 games - the most dominant title run of the season so far - and her one junior Slam title came at Wimbledon.
But put Swiatek on clay, and that's where every aspect of her game - the creativity, the joy, the variation that balances her heavy topspin, laser-flat precision, perfectly weighted dropshots and lobs - shines through. The 19-year-old has played just seven tour-level events on clay, but she has now made the final or better at three of them. If she comes through Sunday, she will hold two of the three biggest clay events on tour.
And if there's any need for extra motivation: A win over Pliskova would vault Swiatek into the Top 10 for the first time. The two have yet to face on tour, but they have practiced and played an exhibition together.
"I'm feeling pretty confident on court," Swiatek said. "If my game is going to be there tomorrow, I can do anything."
Both women come into the final having saved match points. Swiatek saved two against Barbora Krejcikova in the Round of 16. If that wasn't enough dramatics for one tournament, on Saturday Swiatek had to pull double duty. After her quarterfinal was rained out Friday, she faced the daunting task of defeating No.5 Elina Svitolina and a red-hot Coco Gauff over the span of seven hours. Swiatek did not lose a set.
Her clay run-up has been a perfect setup for her impending title defense at Roland Garros. The prodigious teen, who travels with a sports psychologist, has been refreshingly open about the influx of stress after becoming an overnight sensation. Despite her concern - or perhaps because of it - Swiatek has handled her follow-up season incredibly well. Since winning Roland Garros, she has advanced to the Round of 16 or better at six of seven tournaments.
"I'm surprising myself actually when I'm not doing well because I'm pretty ambitious," Swiatek said. "I'm a perfectionist, which I'm fighting with sometimes.
"I always try to learn from what other girls experienced. There are many players that had some kind of regression after winning their first Grand Slam. I always thought, try to be different. Just work. Just focus on not doing the same mistakes. It works pretty well." -- Nguyen