Serena Williams Loses First Match at Italian Open

Serena Williams has come a traditionally good distance since she made her WTA Tour debut at age 14. She has gained 23 Grand Slam singles titles and 50 different tour titles; occupied the No. 1 rating for 319 weeks; and turn into one of many cultural touchstones of her time and one of many biggest athletes of any time.

There is, at this superior stage, a lot to have fun in her singular journey. But her 1,000th profession singles match, performed on Wednesday on a breezy afternoon at the Italian Open, was an often-frustrating reminder of simply how far she has to go to renew successful the sport’s greatest prizes, in opposition to the percentages, at age 39.

Seeded and ranked eighth, Williams has was a part-time tennis professional. She makes intermittent appearances on the circuit whereas her youthful rivals proceed to grind away and enhance day-to-day and spherical by spherical, even within the midst of a pandemic.

Wednesday’s loss in Rome in opposition to Nadia Podoroska was Williams’s first match in almost three months. Her need has not dimmed, as her shrieks, grunts and clenched fists made clear. But her energy to intimidate has diminished, and although Podoroska had by no means confronted Williams, she stared down the problem to win, 7-6 (6), 7-5, within the spherical of 32.

But these are different days. Podoroska won a great scrambling point with a backhand reflex volley and went on to hold serve. With Williams serving to stay in the match, Podoroska hit a bold and precise forehand inside-out winner from deep to go up by 0-30. Williams lost the next two points with glaring errors: an ill-judged low forehand swing volley and a tentative forehand unforced error.

How often has Williams been broken at love in the final game of a match?

Answer: Not often.

“I’ve been training for months, but it feels different on clay to make that last adjustment,” she said. “Finding the rhythm, even sliding and confidence with that, with movement, and just not wanting to break my ankle when I moved. That’s always like a little struggle in the first two matches, and then I’m raring to go.”

The trouble is, she played only one match in Rome. A bigger problem is that there are so many hungry young players full of talent and dreams who no longer wilt in the face of Williams’s power and presence.

She last competed in February, losing to a 23-year-old Naomi Osaka in a semifinal of the Australian Open, another match in which Williams’s first-serve percentage dipped precipitously.

She had expected to play more on hardcourts in March. But the BNP Paribas Open in Indian Wells, Calif., was postponed, and she withdrew from the Miami Open, citing unplanned dental surgery.

“Maybe I do need a few more matches,” Williams said. “I’m going to try and figure that out with my team and my coach and see what we would like to do.”

Her next move is probably accepting a wild card into the WTA event in Parma, Italy, next week, which would give her more competition before the French Open, which begins May 30 in Paris. For now, she has played just three tournaments in the past eight months.

That might have been enough at one stage, given the gap between Williams and the field. But the gap is gone, and a busier tennis schedule is essential if she is truly committed to playing (and winning) into her 40s. It took her less than two years to get from 800 career singles matches to 900. It took nearly five years to get from 900 to 1,000.

Her 851-149 career record remains a work of art, but nothing in sports is eternal, even in Rome, the Eternal City.

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