Serena Williams and Madison Keys, both trying to win their first title of the year, faced off in the 2016 Italian Open final.
In 2015, Serena Williams stood on the brink of one of the rarest feats in the game: capturing the calendar-year Grand Slam. However, her run was shockingly stopped by Roberta Vinci in the semifinals, which would end up becoming the American’s last match of the season.
Making her 2016 debut at the Australian Open, the world No. 1 advanced to the final, where she lost to Angelique Kerber. She dropped another final in Indian Wells, then was upset in the third round in Miami, before turning her attention to the clay in preparation for the French Open.
Starting this stretch of the year in Rome, Williams—a three-time champion at the tournament—advanced to her third final of 2016. In the championship match, she’d face her young countrywoman Madison Keys, who defeated Petra Kvitova and Garbine Muguruza on her way to the biggest final of her career.
Coming into the match, the two players did have a level of familiarity with each other’s game: Williams had topped Keys twice in 2015 at the Australian and US opens in their only career encounters. In the first set here, it was the 21-year-old Keys who got off to a solid start as she broke Williams early to go up 3-1. Williams made her move a couple of games to level the opener and the two fought their way through gusty conditions to reach a tiebreaker. Even at 5-5, Williams took the next two points to claim a one-set lead.
In the second set, the veteran Williams raced out to an early 3-0 lead behind two breaks. Keys recovered one of them in the fourth game and another later on, but it wasn’t enough: Serving down 3-5, Keys sent a backhand long on match point to give Williams her first title of the year.
With her fourth title at the tournament, Rome stood alone as Williams’ most successful clay-court event in terms of overall victories. She won in Paris and Charleston, S.C., three times each.
Keys became the fourth American woman to reach the final in Rome in the 2000s after Serena Williams, Monica Seles and Jennifer Capriati.
The last time two women playing under the U.S. flag contested a final in Rome was in 1970, when Billie Jean King defeated Julie Heldman.