Serena Williams has come a traditionally great distance since she made her WTA Tour debut at age 14. She has received 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 best 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 on 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 chances, at age 39.

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

Wednesday’s loss in Rome in opposition to Nadia Podoroska was Williams’s first match in practically three months. Her want 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, in the spherical of 32.

“It’s an honor to play against her,” Podoroska mentioned. “I saw her playing since I was a child.”

She missed Williams’s first match on tour, nevertheless. Podoroska, an unseeded 24-year-old Argentine, was not but born when Williams played in the qualifying tournament in Quebec City, Canada, on Oct. 28, 1995, dropping to a different American teenager, Annie Miller.

Miller received, 6-1, 6-1, in lower than an hour.

“I didn’t play like I meant to play,” Williams mentioned then.

More than 25 years later, the identical sentiment surfaced in Rome, considered one of Williams’s favourite cities. Her signature shot — her fearsome first serve — failed her repeatedly. She put solely 48 p.c of her first serves in play, forcing the difficulty underneath stress and casting more and more exasperated seems at her coach, Patrick Mouratoglou, and her husband, Alexis Ohanian, in the practically empty stands on middle court docket.

Even when Williams did make a primary serve, she received simply 62 p.c of the factors — an ominously low determine for her and a tribute to Podoroska’s stable returns and noteworthy defensive expertise on clay.

“It was definitely kind of good to go the distance and try to be out there, but clearly I can do legions better,” Williams mentioned.

Podoroska grew up enjoying on clay in Argentina, and it confirmed as she slid expertly into groundstrokes and adjusted course rapidly. She understands the best way to assemble factors on clay, and her kick serve and heavy topspin forehand are nicely suited to the sport’s grittiest floor, as she proved final 12 months with a surprise run to the semifinals on the French Open.

“Of course, that helps me,” Podoroska mentioned of that breakthrough. “I feel a lot of confidence playing on clay courts.”

But Williams, in her prime, overwhelmed many a clay-court specialist, breaching defenses with full-cut forehands off brief returns and juicy second serves. She couldn’t get the timing or components fairly proper on Wednesday, even when Podoroska dropped hints that she won’t be able to beat the perfect ladies’s participant of the 21st century.

Podoroska served for the primary set at 5-Four and was damaged. She then misplaced a 6-Three lead in the tiebreaker as Williams saved three set factors, however at 6-6, Williams steered an edgy, off-balance forehand simply huge down the road. Podoroska closed out the set with a very good serve and a forehand winner.

In the second set, Podoroska served for the match at 5-Three and was damaged at love, making three unforced errors. Williams then held at like to 5-5. Those who’ve adopted her know what this kind of state of affairs usually means: a ferocious struggle again to a three-set victory.

But these are completely different days. Podoroska received an ideal scrambling level with a backhand reflex volley and went on to carry serve. With Williams serving to remain in the match, Podoroska hit a daring and exact forehand inside-out winner from deep to go up by 0-30. Williams misplaced the following two factors with obvious errors: an ill-judged low forehand swing volley and a tentative forehand unforced error.

How usually has Williams been damaged at love in the ultimate sport of a match?

Answer: Not usually.

“I’ve been training for months, but it feels different on clay to make that last adjustment,” she mentioned. “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 bother is, she performed just one match in Rome. An even bigger downside is that there are such a lot of hungry younger gamers filled with expertise and goals who not wilt in the face of Williams’s energy and presence.

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

She had anticipated to play extra on hardcourts in March. But the BNP Paribas Open in Indian Wells, Calif., was postponed, and she or he withdrew from the Miami Open, citing unplanned dental surgical procedure.

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

Her subsequent transfer might be accepting a wild card into the WTA occasion in Parma, Italy, subsequent week, which might give her extra competitors earlier than the French Open, which begins May 30 in Paris. For now, she has performed simply three tournaments in the previous eight months.

That might need been sufficient at one stage, given the hole between Williams and the sector. But the hole is gone, and a busier tennis schedule is important if she is actually dedicated to enjoying (and successful) into her 40s. It took her lower than two years to get from 800 profession singles matches to 900. It took practically 5 years to get from 900 to 1,000.

Her 851-149 profession report stays a murals, however nothing in sports activities is everlasting, even in Rome, the Eternal City.

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