Can Pliskova-Swiatek Become Rivalry Like Djokovic-Nadal?

Internazionali BNL d’Italia finals day (photo: @InteBNLdItalia/Twitter)

ROME/WASHINGTON, May 16, 2021 (by Michael Dickens)

As the men’s and women’s finals of the Internazionali BNL d’Italia take place Sunday in the Eternal City of Rome, each presents a contrasting difference regarding the sense of rivalry.

The women’s final between World No. 9 Karolina Pliskova of the Czech Republic, who is appearing in her third consecutive Rome final – and won it in 2019 – and World No. 15 and reigning Roland Garros champion Iga Swiatek of Poland, who is attempting to win her second clay final in less than a year, is a first-time match up. Meanwhile, the men’s final between World No. 1 Novak Djokovic and World No. 3 Rafael Nadal will mark the 57th head-to-head clash between these two future Hall of Fame stars. It will be their ninth meeting in Rome and sixth Italian Open final.

Such is the predicament of pro tennis – where there is plenty of talent and depth and fresh faces on the women’s tour, but because of all these positive factors, there’s been a noticeable lack of developing rivalries. Meanwhile, one need only look at the ATP and there are plenty of great, longstanding rivalries.

It takes years to build a rivalry, as New York Times tennis correspondent Christopher Clarey reminded us via Twitter on Saturday. It’s something that Djokovic and Nadal have spent a lifetime on tour establishing, not only between them but also when you factor Roger Federer and Andy Murray into the equation, too.

Djokovic, 33, and Nadal, 34, have met eight previous times at Foro Italico – Nadal leads the head-to-head five to three in Rome – and the Serbian leads the overall rivalry 29-27.

“It’s great to play him again in the final,” Djokovic said Saturday after his semifinal win against Lorenzo Sonego. “He’s the guy that I have encountered the most in my career. [He is] definitely my biggest rival of all time. Playing him on clay in the finals of one of the biggest tournaments in the world is always extra motivating for me.

“Even after all we have been through in our careers there’s still this excitement when we have to face each other.”

Maybe, Pliskova, who is No. 2 on the WTA tour in service aces with 133, and Swiatek, who is among the Top 10 in both first-serve and second-serve points won, will have a chance to form a rivalry. Although there’s a 10-year age gap between them (Pliskova is 29 while Swiatek is just 19), it’s never too late to start a rivalry. Both seem to thrive on clay – and Rome has been very, very good to each of them this week.

“There are some weeks where I just feel better no matter in which situation I am, in which shape I am,” Pliskova said during one of her virtual press conferences this week. “I think this is one of them.” And as for Rome, she offered this assessment: “The tournaments where I obviously had success in the past, I’m always feeling much better and more confident.”

As for Swiatek, although she’s only played in seven tour-level clay events, the talented Polish teenager has reached the final in three of them. If she can beat Pliskova to win Rome, it would vault her into the Top 10, two weeks shy of her 20th birthday.

“I’m feeling pretty confident on court,” Swiatek said Saturday after beating another teen, Coco Gauff of the United States, in the semifinals. “If my game is going to be there tomorrow, I can do anything.”

Sunday’s Internazionali BNL d’Italia order of play

Road to Roland Garros goes through Belgrade

The WTA’s road to Roland Garros continues with the inaugural Serbia Ladies Open beginning today in Belgrade at the Novak Tennis Center, named after men’s World No. 1 Novak Djokovic.

The 32-player singles draw of this WTA 250-series outdoor red clay event includes five players in the current Top 50, led by No. 1 seed Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova of Russia, ranked 30th, who was a semifinalist at Madrid earlier this month before losing to eventual champion Aryna Sabalenka.

Also, there’s No. 2 seed Yulia Putintseva of Kazakhstan, ranked 34th; No. 3 seed Zhang Shuai of China, ranked 41st; No. 4 seed Paula Badosa of Spain, ranked 42nd, who became the first Spanish woman to reach the semifinals at Madrid; and No. 5 seed Nadia Podoroska of Argentina, a semifinalist last year at the French Open who beat Serena Williams in Rome last week and is currently ranked 44th. The other three seeded players are: No. 6 seed Kristina Mladenovic of France, ranked 53rd; No. 7 seed Rebecca Peterson of Sweden, ranked 61st; and No. 8 seed Danka Kovinic, ranked 53rd.

Qualifying wraps up Sunday and there are also three main-draw matches on the order of play: Badosa versus Andrea Petkovic of Germany; Podoroska versus Timea Babos of Hungary; and Kristyna Pliskova of the Czech Republic versus Oceane Dodin of France.

What they’re saying

Novak Djokovic on what it means to not give up or give in to the #NextGenATP rising stars: “Rafa and I had a little laugh today in the locker room after I won against Tsitsipas. We kind of joked around that the old guys are still not giving up. I saw [that] he said somewhere a few days ago that Roger, him and I are old, but I disagree with him. I think we’re showing some different, fresh energy.

“We had a laugh about it. … I’m really glad that we are showing we’re not backing off from the #NetGenATP attacks.”

Paul McNamee, retired Australian tennis player, on the Djokovic-Nadal final: “Two great players, Djokovic and Nadal, face off in the Rome final, the later of course having far more rest going in. You’d expect this would automatically lead to a Nadal victory, but remember sport does not play to a script. That’s why we love it.”

What they’re sharing on social media

Ashleigh Barty / Know when to listen to your body

Petra Kvitova / Today I got to be coach and auntie