On a day interrupted by rainfall and dire weather in the Italian capital, Madison Keys and Serena Williams managed to overcome difficult opponents to book their spot in the Internazionali BNL d'Italia finals. The all-American title match will be the first on clay since 2002. René Denfeld recaps semifinal Saturday in Rome.
The forecast for the penultimate day of the Internazionali BNP d'Italia was dire to begin with, but ended with stars and stripes shining across the Foro Italico.
The rain was heavy in the Italian capital throughout the morning, beginning at 6 am and not letting go until 2 pm. In between, the covers on Campo Centrale were taken on and off and on and off again, never quite giving anyone any security whether play was going to take place anytime soon or whether another rain delay was coming.
Internazionali di tennis Roma 2016! Rain… Rain… And more rain… pic.twitter.com/tL5XdK921S
— adrian nitu (@adriannitu) May 14, 2016
A little over two hours after what was their schedule to start play, Madison Keys and Garbine Muguruza got the OK to finally begin their semifinal, but the pair ended up getting bumped with the opening men's semifinal between Lucas Pouille and Andy Murray which got preferential treatment to stay on Centrale — the American and the Spaniard had been moved from Campo Centrale to Pietrangeli in an attempt to keep the schedule in Rome intact.
It was Keys who immediately got off to a better start in the heaviest of clay conditions. With the air almost super-saturated, the balls extremely heavy and more and more of her powerful forehands finding their range, it was the American who found the early opening break, but Muguruza immediately returned the favor — quite literally, to get the match back on serve at 2-3. From here on out, however, Keys was keeping the door shut on her own service games, never allowing Muguruza another break chance.
"I think I played really well today," Keys said. "You know, the first set was a struggle. We were both serving really well, and it's always tough when you're starting and stopping and things like that."
Much like in her match against Petra Kvitova in Stuttgart, Garbine Muguruza was on the backfoot for much of the match, facing one of the few bigger hitters than her and struggling a little more to hit though the heavy conditions at the Foro Italico.
"Well, I felt she was very loose today. I think maybe because she doesn't like clay. I don't know. But I felt she was playing great. Her serve was good today," the Spaniard explained after the encounter.
"With this kind of weather, she was just hitting really hard and missing very few balls. She played well."
In the first-set tiebreak, it was a mini-break festival, but in the end Keys was able to convert the first set point she had on her own serve.
"She makes you feel, you know, putting a lot of pressure all the time," the world number three said about her opponent.
"Was only two points difference in the first set, and, well, it went to her side. But I'm really surprised how she played today."
In the second set the pattern continued with the American holding her own service games with relative ease, while landing the crucial blow against the third seed later to break for a *4-3 lead which she never relinquished until converting on her second match point to make the biggest final of her career so far — on clay of all surfaces. But it wasn't without further complications, as rain began to set in once again, with the 21-year-old just two points from victory.
"Oh, yeah, I was thinking it. I was thinking, Oh, my God, it's 30-15, 5-4, I'm serving. With my luck, we'll be rained out until tomorrow, and I'm going to have two points and I'm going to think about it all night," Keys laughed.
"But then luckily that didn't happen. So I caught myself pretty quickly. And, I mean, it's always tough, but we're both dealing with it, and I think we have dealt with it enough that we know how to handle it."
"It feels so good, so good (to make the finals)," Keys smiled. "I'm really, really happy."
In the second semifinal of the day, Irina-Camelia Begu tried to pull off the upset against Serena Williams. The American, however, came out of the blocks looking solid, breaking her opponent early, and although she wasn't able to confirm the break, it was Begu who always had to play catch-up in the first set and the world number one eventually broke to take the opener 6-4.
Begu managed to get off to a better start in the next set, but afterwards it was one-way traffic. After losing her serve to begin the set, the world number one reeled off the final six games of the match to secure her spot in the finals of Rome — not only playing herself into her first claycourt finals of the year, but also into the right form ahead of the French Open.
"I thought she played a great game," Williams said of her opponent. "I think she takes the ball really early, and it took me a minute to get used to her game. I wasn't — I mean, I have seen her play, but I wasn't quite sure still what to expect because we have never played before.
But I see why she does so well. I feel like she's a player that has a lot of intensity and she fights really hard."
Williams has been able to play two very solid matches in the quarterfinals and semifinals after withstanding a tough test in her second round against compatriot Christina McHale.
" I, you know, have just been playing on the clay and been practicing. I feel like everything is kind of coming together. So I feel pretty good about it," the world number one assessed the state of her own game.
In a fun twist of fate, after having an all-Italian final at last year's US Open, tomorrow's Italian Open final will see and all-American encounter — something that hasn't happen in a very long time — not since Venus Williams and Serena Williams played the finals of the French Open in 2002 – quite a while ago, as the 34-year-old herself admitted.
"You know, we're an all-American final on the clay. It's been a minute since that's happened," Williams laughed when been presented with the factoid.
It's bound to be a match with a lot of big serving and firepower — and Williams is all too aware of Keys' strength, but also happy about the challenge lying ahead.
"Well, one thing I have learned is that Madison gets better every time, and that's great because when you play people, especially when they're young like her and the future of American tennis, you know, it's so good to see them get better," the world number one said about her opponent.
"So for me it's just, you know, trying to do the same thing, even though I'm a little older, just to get better and to be ready for her and to do the best that I can."
Keys is looking forward to a tough challenge as well, knowing that she'll have to capitalize on every chance that she is being given, if she wants to have a chance of lifting the big trophy tomorrow.
"I played (Serena) pretty close the first set of the Australian Open. So definitely made me realize that I can stay in it," the 21-year-old looked back.
"But, I mean, I think you watch her play and you play against her and there are just some times when you think she just stepped up her level. But I think if you're kind of able to weather the storm and stay with her that, you know, every once in a while you get one or two opportunities and it's, you know, really taking those opportunities."
Williams and Keys will be contesting the women's final of the Internazionali BNL d'italia at 2 pm tomorrow — if the Roman skies permit it.