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.
Image source – Jimmie 48
NADAL’S OWN NOVELTY
The biggest upset at the 2018 men’s Roland Garros tournament was not Marco Cecchinato over Novak Djokovic. It was something much bigger: Through the first six rounds of play, the men produced a better, more interesting, more compelling tournament than the women. That hadn’t happened in a few years. The 2017 Australian Open was great on both the men’s and women’s sides. The last time the men were unambiguously better than the women? If you have a clear answer, good for you, but it won’t come from the past three years. The men have occasionally matched the women and usually fallen short.
At Roland Garros in 2018, the men were better. (more…)
WOMEN’S TENNIS: THIS KIND OF SOCIALISM WORKS
Socialism sounds good in theory but never ends up well in practice, they say.
“They” obviously aren’t watching women’s professional tennis these days.
Remember when Serena Williams continued and extended her control over the WTA Tour at the 2017 Australian Open, following a 2016 run in which she made three major finals and a fourth semifinal? That 2016 season was also a campaign in which Angelique Kerber reached three major finals and won two. Not a lot of sharing happened on the WTA Tour, and when Serena lifted her 23rd major crown in Melbourne, it seemed that women’s tennis would remain a monarchy run by Serena, not a democracy in which various players had an equal say in the year’s most important tournaments.
Then came Serena’s pregnancy, and in a heartbeat, the WTA became a vast expanse of questions and uncertainties.
We have seen on the ATP Tour how the injury-based absences of top players have created voids — not only in terms of consistent results at majors, but also the overall quality of play. This just-concluded French Open was one of the ATP’s better majors in a while, but over the past two years, men’s tennis at the Grand Slam tournaments has been largely dreary and uninspiring. Most finals have been numbingly predictable snoozefests, and without proven players to take charge in halves or quarters of draws, many random results — “someone will win because someone has to, not because someone is transcendent or special” — have proliferated. The 2017 Roland Garros tournament was like this. The 2017 Wimbledon tournament offered glimpses of such an identity. 2017 U.S. Open was the ultimate representation of this dynamic over the past 18 months. The 2018 Australian Open largely fit this description as well.
Missing the top stars the past 18 to 24 months has noticeably hurt the quality of the ATP Tour, so when Serena had to tend to the task of childbirth, everyone naturally wondered how women’s tennis would respond.
The results have been unpredictable, just as they have been with the men (hello, Sam Querrey making a Wimbledon semifinal; Kevin Anderson playing Pablo Carreno Busta in a U.S. Open semifinal; Hyeon Chung and Kyle Edmund making Australian Open semis; Marco Cecchinato making these just-concluded Roland Garros semis). However, women’s tennis has produced the compelling major finals men’s tennis has failed to deliver. Just compare the two Roland Garros finals we witnessed over the weekend.
More than that, women’s tennis is crowning the new champions men’s tennis is failing to produce.
Since the start of 2010, men’s tennis has created only three first-time major champions: Andy Murray at the 2012 U.S. Open, Stan Wawrinka at the 2014 Australian Open, and Marin Cilic at the 2014 U.S. Open.
Ever since Serena stepped away from the sport in early 2017, the WTA — in a span of five major tournaments — has exceeded the men’s total of first-time major winners this decade.
Jelena Ostapenko last year at Roland Garros; Sloane Stephens at the U.S. Open; Caroline Wozniacki in Australia; and Simona Halep this past Saturday in Paris have all crossed the threshold. If the men — #ATPLostBoys — can’t pass the baton to younger generations just yet, the WTA is doing exactly that, and in supremely entertaining fashion. What is even more noteworthy: The players at the center of the WTA’s balanced distribution of signature championships are removing significant what-if burdens from the sport.
Ostapenko is the outlier in the group, but Stephens has answered questions about who will be the next American player to follow in Serena’s footsteps — not to the same extent, of course, but certainly in terms of being a constant threat to do well at the biggest events in the sport.
In 2018, Wozniacki and Halep have both removed the eight most oppressive words in tennis or golf from their necks: “Best player never to have won a major.” The unpredictability we all expected in women’s tennis once Serena stepped away has been the happiest, most productive unpredictability one could imagine. The combination of entertainment value and redemptive stories has been off the charts.
The flow of life on the WTA Tour has been so cathartic and inspiring that after Wozniacki and Halep removed burdensome labels from their careers, there’s no similarly acute example remaining of a player currently in contention at majors who is trying to banish her demons. Karolina Pliskova, at 26, is the oldest player without a major in the current WTA top 10. As she gets to age 28 or 29, her story might become more poignant, but as someone who has made only two major semifinals and only one major final, Pliskova doesn’t have the accumulation of memorably painful defeats both Wozniacki and Halep absorbed before those two finally broke through. Wozniacki’s and Halep’s respective triumphs this year carried so much impact because the tennis world was aware how often they had climbed the hill, only to be knocked down to the valleys below. Pliskova’s story doesn’t carry the same weight — not yet. The WTA has written the two foremost feel-good stories it possibly could have authored in 2018.
The one still-active player on the WTA Tour who can legitimately claim to be the “Best Player Never To Have Won A Major” is Agnieszka Radwanska, now 29 years old. However, she is outside the top 25 and hasn’t been a top threat at the majors for roughly two years. (She lost to Serena in the 2016 Australian Open semifinals.) Among active players in contention at the year’s biggest tournaments, no first-time major hopefuls carry the promise of hope or the weight of longing to the degree Wozniacki and Halep offered.
In an age when so many sports teams — internationally and in America — are winning their first huge championships in their respective realms of competition, the WTA is in step with the times. That the WTA’s evolution has coexisted with a high quality of play and gripping major finals shows that this version of socialism — wide and relatively even distribution of resources — works in practice, not just in theory.
We will see at Wimbledon if it continues.
Testigos de la grandeza
Mientras veía a Rafael Nadal intentar completar el tercer set de la final masculina de Roland Garros a la vez que resistía un calambre en su mano izquierda, de repente, comprendí algo que me impactó: cada pequeño detalle debe darse para que un jugador encuentre el santo grial del tenis, también conocido como ganar un gran título de grand slam. No puede haber ningún accidente.
Ningún conductor ebrio, como el que frenó a Thomas Muster, ni un fanático desequilibrado, como el que interrumpió el curso de la vida de Mónica Seles. No puede haber ninguna lesión, como las muñecas vulnerables de Juan Martín Del Potro o ninguna distracción que pueda causar algún problema personal. Ni siquiera se puede sufrir un lapsus de concentración porque eso le abre la puerta a rivales hambrientos que siempre están trabajando para mejorar. (more…)