But, as I have discovered across the years, it is important to make a tough choice at these times. Rather than observing bits and pieces of every consequential match, it can make more sense to select one encounter that promises to be not only close but also a high quality skirmish. I happened to be in the right place at the right time, sitting in the Centre Court for the Venus Williams contest against No. 6 seed Petra Kvitova.
The 34-year-old Williams was appearing in her 17th Wimbledon, and was seeded 30th. The seven time major singles champion has been victorious here no fewer than five times. Her sister Serena has matched that mark, but few modern players have surpassed it. Billie Jean King captured the singles championship six times. Steffi Graf was a seven time victor. And Martina Navratilova established herself as the all-time singles champion by securing nine titles, taking the first in 1978, winning her last twelve years later.
Clearly, Venus Williams stands among the finest female champions ever at the All England Club, and she was hoping to make another run here this year, even if it was very much against the odds that she could record seven match victories for another title. Still, she went out there against Kvitova and gave us a terrific performance in the twilight of her career. This was a battle of champions because Kvitova took her lone major on these lawns three years ago. Kvitova is ten years younger than Venus. She is an estimable left-hander with immense gifts, a scintillating shot maker off both sides, and now a better competitor than she has ever been before.
Kvitova had won three of her four career meetings with Venus, including the last two in Tokyo last year and Doha earlier this season. But both of those showdowns were settled in final set tie-breaks. Every match between Williams and Kvitova has gone the full three sets. Yet this one today might well be the best match they have ever played against each other, and it could turn out to be one of the greatest womens matches of this fortnight at Wimbledon in 2014.
Kvitova was a worthy winner in the end, recouping for a 5-7, 7-6 (2), 7-5 triumph over a resolute Williams. In the three long sets, each woman broke serve only once. Many of us complain frequently these days that there are too many service breaks in the womens game, that breaks come about too easily, that some of the leading players do not place enough emphasis on making the serve a strength that they can count on and exploit from the beginning to the end of a match.
In this case, both women served prodigiously, and backed up their deliveries remarkably well. This was a refreshing departure from the normal run of events in womens tennis, with so many competitors excelling on the return rather than taking control with the notion of winning countless free points with big serving. In the Kvitova-Williams third round appointment, both women sedulously held their serves all match long, and they played aggressive grass court tennis. No longer did the Centre Court look slow; they made it appear to be fast with their first class serving. Venus, of course, has one of the all-time best serves in womens tennis, and although she is past her prime the serve still keeps her in a good many matches.
Against Kvitova, she served not only powerfully but purposefully, although her numbers declined. In the first set, she won 88% of her first serve points. She was at 76% in the second set and then 65% for the third set. Kvitova moved in the opposite direction, and that might have been the difference in the end. She won 67% of her first serve points in the opening set, then 75% in the second set and 81% in the third. On second serve points, Kvitova did well enough, winning 50% in the first set, 75% in the second set and 50% again in the third. Venus won a startling 73% of her second serve points in the first set but she was down at 38% in the second set and 47% in the third. Kvitova also kept her first serve percentage in a steady range all three sets, finishing at 71%. Williams was at 60%. Another fascinating statistic is this: Williams made only 19 unforced errors in the match while Kvitova had 34, but Kvitova released 48 dazzling winners while Williams countered with only 25.
Lets examine a match that I thoroughly enjoyed from beginning to end. Venus was down break point at 30-40 on her serve in the first game but she battled her way out of that corner with a deep shot inducing a netted backhand from Kvitova. Williams held on from there for 1-0. Kvitova also struggled a bit on her serve in the second game, double faulting to trail 15-30. But she aced her way back to 30-30 and held at 30 for 1-1. Both players found their range swiftly, with Williams holding at 15 for 2-1 before Kvitova held at 30 to make it 2-2. Venus moved briskly to 3-2, holding at 15. Kvitova had 40-30 in the sixth game, and then double faulted, but she closed out that game with no more hesitation. It was 3-3.
Williams had her rhythm on serve now, and held at love for 4-3, but Kvitova was unswerving, releasing a second serve ace at 110 MPH for 40-15, holding at 15 for 4-4. Williams answered with a hold at 15; Kvitova did the same to level the score at 5-5. A tie-break seemed almost inevitable, but Williams found an opening. She held at love for 6-5 with consecutive aces, going down the T at 30-0 and out wide at 40-0. In the following game, all of her returns were deep and crackling. She broke at love despite Kvitova missing only one first serve. On a run of eight consecutive points, Williams had the set, 7-5, and the momentum was on her side.
Venus was pushed to deuce in the opening game of the second set, but she held on for 1-0 with deep determination. Both players held with relative ease until it was 2-2. At 30-30 in the fifth game, Williams swung a slice serve wide in the deuce court for an 89 MPH and she moved to 3-2 from there. The following game was crucial. Kvitova was down 0-30 but she sent a terrific left-handed slice serve down the T that was too much for Williams to handle. Kvitova followed with an ace out wide. She took the next point and then connected with a superb forehand winner down the line for 3-3. Venus did not miss a first serve in the seventh game, holding at love with two service winners, a forehand ground stroke winner and a backhand swing volley into the clear. That bold stand gave Williams a 4-3 lead, and yet Kvitova responded with a love hold of her own for 4-4.
Williams served at 30-30 in the ninth game but cracked a 117 MPH unstoppable serve down the T. Kvitova rallied to deuce but Williams remained aggressive and unrelenting. She surged to 5-4 and then had Kvitova at 15-30 in the tenth game. The American was only two points away from a significant victory over the No. 6 seed. But Kvitova aced Williams out wide before sending out two more excellent first serves that Williams could not get back into play. It was 5-5 in the second set.
Both players held easily to set up the critical tie-break. Kvitova opened that sequence with an angled backhand return crosscourt winner off a 70 MPH second serve from Williams. Kvitova widened her lead to 3-0 and 4-1 before Williams made a backhand return winner. But Kvitova took three points in a row to close the tie-break comfortably. Williams double faulted at 2-6, and on they went into a final set. At 0-1 in the third set, Williams was pushed thrice to deuce but she held on gamely. Serving at 2-3, Williams was once more in something of a bind but she won another deuce game to hold for 3-3, closing it out with a 114 MPH first serve that Kvitova could not control on the return.
Undismayed by that lost opportunity, Kvitova held at love for 4-3, putting all four first serves in, producing aces at 30-0 and 40-0, directing both deliveries down the T. Venus was taken to 30-30 in the eighth game but she collected the next two points to reach 4-4. Kvitova found herself in immediate danger after that. Serving in the ninth game, she was down 0-30 but a scorching backhand down the line won her the next point, and then a service winner out wide made it 30-30. Venus made Kvitova bend low on the next point, but Kvitova still managed to drive a forehand down the line for an outright winner. She surged to 5-4 with a backhand down the line winner.
Williams was under duress as she served from behind in that final set. At 4-5, she stood at deuce, two points from defeat. But she was fortunate when Kvitova bungled a backhand return off a second serve. Williams held for 5-5, looking for one last opening. She almost found it as Kvitova served two double faults in the eleventh game, the second knotting the score at 30-30. But Kvitova held her nerve, releasing a gorgeous service winner down the T and then lacing a forehand winner up the line. It was 6-5 for Kvitova, and Williams was out of answers. She won the first point of the twelfth game, but then lost four in a row as Kvitova picked persistently on the Americans backhand side. In precisely two-and-a-half hours, Kvitova had bested her formidable rival in a gripping contest that was exceedingly well played on both sides of the net.
Kvitova moved on to the round of 16, and perhaps she can put herself in a position to secure a second title on the British grass. As for Venus Williams, she bowed out honorably, fighting with quiet intensity right up until the end, serving magnificently for the most part, displaying surprisingly good ball control off her sometimes vulnerable forehand side. Venus won her last major singles title here at Wimbledon back in 2008, toppling her sister Serena. She returned to the final a year later, losing to Serena. Those days appear to be over for a proud champion with a large amount of willpower but a dwindling supply of resources. Her health has been an issue since 2011. Her stamina is not as considerable at once was. Her game is less intimidating than it was in her heyday.
The fact remains that she played beautifully against Kvitova and stretched a leading player who is ten years younger to her absolute limits. Venus Williams departed with grace and style from this Wimbledon, reminding us strikingly about how good she remains and how great she once was. She could not have asked anything more from herself than that.
<Steve Flink has been reporting on tennis since 1974. He has been a columnist for tennischannel.com since 2007. You can purchase Steve’s latest book “The Greatest Tennis Matches of All Time” here.
<Steve Flink Archive | Email Steve