When Petra Kvitova and Anett Kontaveit stepped on Court No. 1 for their third-round match at Roland Garros on Saturday, it was hard to predict if we would see a slugfest with one spectacular winner after another or a match marked by a large amount of errors. Both players are powerful ballstrikers for whom the idea of producing winners with their groundstrokes comes naturally. That notion figures as a primary component of their primary game plans.
Anything is possible in terms of match quality with two risk-takers such as Kontaveit and Kvitova. It could be that one player strikes winners from all angles, while the other comes out cold and misses a bunch. It could be that unforced errors take center stage and decide the outcome, or it could be that both start slowly at first, only to raise their level more and more as the match progresses. I could write a whole page multiplying these possible formulas, but I will not. I think you get the idea.
There was one thing, however, that we could comfortably count on. It would most likely be a tightly contested match based on the previous two encounters between them. Kvitova won both in three sets, coming back from a set down in each, on the hard courts of Cincinnati last year (1-6, 7-6, 6-3) and on the red clay of Madrid less than a month ago (6-7, 6-3, 6-3).
On that account, Petra and Anett delivered as expected. The match ended 7-6 7-6 in favor of the underdog – if you can call Kontaveit that, under these circumstances – and each set featured a number of turning points that engendered a terrific cat-and-mouse game on the scoreboard.
In terms of the “anything-is-possible” part, noted above, it was a hodgepodge of stunning winners during some sequences and shockingly unexpected errors during others.
It did not start well for Kontaveit, who — down a break point in the very first game of the match — blew an easy forehand sitter deep to lose her serve. Not much later, she found herself down 3-1. Kvitova had four winners by that time and seemed poised to take a decisive two-break lead when she earned two more break points in that game.
Faced with the danger of the first set getting away from her in the blink of an eye, Kontaveit did what players of her character do. Reminiscent of Monica Seles, who often said that when she was down and struggling, she would just hit the ball harder, Kontaveit went for a booming second serve at 15-40 and recorded an ace! At 30-40, she struck four deep balls that bounced within inches of the baseline before hitting a sharp-angled, cross-court backhand for a winner.
This was a great example of the positive side of the hodgepodge of turning points on Saturday. Anett showed courage and dug herself out of the 15-40 hole, held serve, and thus shifted the early momentum in her favor. To clarify, she did not suddenly start playing a 5-star brand of tennis. The momentum shifted in the sense that Kvitova, unable to add that extra cushion to her one-break lead, became apprehensive. She started the game with a double fault and made two forehand errors on the way to losing her serve.
The prospect of being up by two breaks was now long gone and she found herself level at 3-3 with her opponent.
Kontaveit remembered those two break points she saved at 1-3, 15-40, in her post-match talk. She noted that Petra was hitting hard and putting her under intense pressure, so she decided to go for a big second serve, and it worked. But she would also bring up the darker side of that equation, in reference to what happened in the 5-3 game later in the set.
In that game, Kontaveit was two points away – up 30-15 – from wrapping up the first set on her serve. Speaking of “shockingly unexpected errors,” she missed the service box twice for her first double fault of the match and followed that with two serves in the net for her second one. When she said that her risk-taking on second serves also worked against her at times, those were the two double faults she was referring to.
Let me clarify that Kontaveit committing double faults is not a shocking occurrence in and of itself. But to commit your first and second double faults of the match in succession, while you are in the middle of a red-hot streak and two points away from the first set, is equivalent to inviting your in-laws to live with you in the middle of a happy marriage. You are asking for trouble.
And trouble came quickly when Kvitova nailed two forehand winners to break Anett’s serve. The set got extended to a tiebreaker. It was only fitting that the tiebreaker of such a topsy-turvy set would also have two opposing halves. Until 4-4, both women played their hearts out and delighted the crowd on Court No. 1 with a string of terrific points that ended either with direct winners or with players forcing each other into mistakes.
After 4-4, it was a whole different story. Each player double-faulted once to get to 5-5. Then, they each committed one unforced error – first Kvitova on her forehand, then Kontaveit on her backhand on set point – to reach 6-6. Petra framed a return to go down a second set point, and this time Kontaveit closed the set.
The tale of the second set would not be much different than the first, in the sense that the two players still provided the crowd sporadic thrills (although fewer than in the first set) and settled the score in the tiebreaker again.
But the quality of tennis suffered, with both players turning more and more erratic as the set went on. Unlike in the first set, where not every turning point was marked by errors from one of the competitors (ex: the 1-3, 15-40 turnaround by Kontaveit), the second set’s key moments would be remembered for the errors committed, rather than winners hit.
Kontaveit committed seven unforced errors** in the first set, 11 in the second. Kvitova fared much worse. Not only did her unforced-error count jump from five in the first set to 14 in the second, she also double faulted seven times in the second set, compared to three in the first.
** I do my own count of unforced errors and do not include double faults in that count.
Perhaps, the fifth game of the second set will give a better indication of the drop in the quality level. It was a 22-point game in which Kvitova double faulted twice, committed five unforced errors, and still managed to hold serve!
She then broke Kontaveit’s serve to go up 4-2 but simply could not stop the steady flow of unbalanced shots coming out of her racket. She missed routine second-serve returns, made contact with her racket’s frame instead of the strings on convenient, middle-of-the-court sitters, and continued to double fault.
Kontaveit gave her one more lifeline when, serving at 5-4, she squandered two match-point opportunities with routine forehand errors and allowed Petra to get back on serve. It was a reminder that Kvitova’s level was not the only one declining in comparison to the first set.
But the mishaps finally took their toll on Kvitova again. At 3-3 in the second-set tiebreaker, the left-handed Czech missed a routine return wide, committed an unforced error next, and finally, blew an overhead deep, which put her down three match points. Kontaveit would need only two as she watched Petra’s return sail wide on the 6-4 point.
Kvitova properly summarized the match in her press-conference: “It was up and down in the first set, in the second set, in the tiebreak. The whole match was like up and down.”
Kvitova said that she was disappointed that she did not play well but did not neglect to give credit to her opponent. More importantly, she was extremely positive about her clay-court season:
“Well, I couldn’t really imagine myself playing so well on the clay. So I’m very proud of myself,” she said. “I didn’t really think that I will able to do what I did, winning two titles, playing good tennis here. So, like, for me, it was a great clay season. And I’m pretty sad that the clay season is finishing, but, yeah, I’m pretty happy about my clay season.”
One area for which Kontaveit deserves full credit was her ability to run down balls and make Kvitova hit that extra shot. The 5-3 point in the second-set tiebreaker was an emblematic example of how Kvitova probably thought more than once that the point ended, only to see the ball come back to her one more time. It would end with her blowing the overhead deep to go down three match points.
The 25th-seeded Estonian is not a particularly fast player, but I would venture to say that she possesses one of the best – and most underrated – anticipation skills among her peers on the WTA Tour. Next, she will take on Sloane Stephens, a player of a completely different pedigree than Kvitova. It will be interesting to see how she adjusts her game to face Stephens.
Or, will she adjust at all?
Frankly, I do not see Kontaveit veering from her A plan that she uses against most players, but I do see Stephens pushing her to produce a larger number of good shots to win points than Kvitova did Saturday. No hodgepodge allowed.