Remember Petra Kvitova and Venus Williams in the third set of the 2017 U.S. Open quarterfinals in New York?
Remember Kvitova and Venus in that magnificent, soaring Wimbledon third-round match in 2014, played on Centre Court in the middle of an oil painting of an afternoon, a postcard-perfect day at the All England Club?
Kvitova and Serena Williams might not have played very many times — Tuesday night’s confrontation in Cincinnati at the Western and Southern Open was only their seventh — but the meetings between Kvitova and one of the Williams sisters have generated some of the best WTA tennis seen this decade.
This wasn’t a U.S. Open or Wimbledon match, but this showdown in Cincy between Petra and Serena bore the hallmarks of the classic Kvitova-Venus matches cited above.
Sunday in Montreal, Sloane Stephens and Simona Halep engaged each other in a fascinating game of physical and attritional chess. The two players did not try to hit the ball as hard as possible, however, because they both knew that if they hit very hard but could not hit past the opponent, the ball would come screaming back at them, often at a bad angle which would leave them out of position. Throwing the first punch often meant trouble for the thrower of the punch, not the receiver. So much of the challenge of that match revolved not around the first strike, but picking the right spot to attack in the middle of a point, exposing a deficiency in movement more than an open part of the court.
That match was a test to see which player could break through the other’s defenses after several exchanges from the baseline.
Serena-Petra on Tuesday night in Ohio — like any great match between Kvitova and one of the two Williamses, and like many great matches of the 20th century (such as Venus versus Lindsay Davenport in the 2005 Wimbledon final) — did not fit that careful and probing Stephens-Halep template.
What makes a Kvitova-Williams match — or any exemplar of “Big Babe Tennis” (copyright Mary Carillo) — come alive is the haymaker-level hitting. Both players immediately try to land a punch. Both send howitzers to the other side of the court with great depth and accuracy. Set one of this match involved an inconsistent Serena against a razor-sharp Kvitova. Set two involved a virtually unplayable form of Serena. Set three became the pinnacle of the match, a glorious sequence of games in which both women played at a high level at the same time, both hitting lasers within inches of the baseline. Average players hit routine rally balls and try to settle into points. Great players not only try to impose their will, but are adept enough on defense to prevent opponents from doing the same. That’s what we saw in set three.
No mercy. No waiting. No caution… and yet firefight-style points played with precision and daring.
Serena, still working her way into form this summer and still needing matches, made a few untimely errors, but they were forced errors — if not on the stat sheet, then certainly on a psychological level, because Kvitova covered the court so well in the third set. What Kvitova did particularly well was to cover her forehand side, which for a lefty is the ad corner. She was repeatedly able to run down balls Serena smashed into the ad corner and send them back — with interest — very close to the opposite baseline. Serena was naturally caught off guard and did not hit a supremely offensive shot in reply. Kvitova got a manageable ball to hit, stepped inside the court, hit to the corner, and forced a defensive lob from Serena which went long. This pattern was replicated a number of times, and it enabled Kvitova to break Serena’s serve twice in the third set after falling behind by a break.
Serena didn’t let this one get away from her. Kvitova took it away with inspired play in a year when the Czech has won 5 WTA titles.
It was a match worthy of a U.S. Open final. If the draw gods or goddesses are kind to tennis fans, they will allow it to be a possibility… and maybe these players can play the way they did on Tuesday night in suburban Cincinnati.