Setting the Roof on Fire

Wednesday, December 14, 2011 /by

All eyes were on Venus Williams and Kimiko Date-Krumm as they played their second-round match at Wimbledon. The rain that drummed down on the roof over Centre Court had washed out play everywhere else on the grounds. It felt like the All England Club’s version of a marquee night match at Flushing Meadows, except that it began in the early afternoon.

Williams and Date-Krumm appeared to be inspired by the attention, because they pushed each other to exhausting peaks of brilliance over three long, winner-filled sets. By the middle of this clip, I was tired just watching the highlights. Venus and Kimiko have 72 years between them, but they ran and hit and shrieked like kids on this day. Their match is No. 8 on my list for 2011, but it may rank No. 1 for pure, unique tennis entertainment.

*****

—It’s all Kimiko to start. She seems to stun the audience, the announcers, and Venus herself with her all-around-strange style (I wanted to use “counterintuitive” there, but it seems like an understatement). In the first four games, Date-Krumm takes a Venus first serve with her backhand, runs forward, and blocks it down the line for an easy winner. She moves forward again to take another first serve with her forehand, races to the net, and ends the point with a drop-dead drop volley. She puts a topspin lob on the baseline, wins a point with a quick reaction short-hop volley, and goes up 3-0 with a ripped crosscourt forehand pass.

—Who says the “new” (in reality, decade old) grass at Wimbledon is too slow to net-rush on? They should enlighten Date-Krumm, because she doesn’t seem to believe it. Much of her game, from the abbreviated strokes to the flat swing to the two-hand slice to the odd grip to the 12-ounce club she still somehow gets around, is unconventional. But she also has the fundamentals down, and that allows to get the bigger-hitting Williams on the run. Date-Krumm counters her power by doing what you’re told to do but which so few players, men or women, do now: robbing her opponent of time. Even on hard-hit shots, she moves forward to meet the ball, takes it early, and, when she has Venus out of position, places herself inside the baseline for the next ball.

Of course, not everyone has Date-Krumm’s hands. Of the numerous drop shots and drop volleys she hits here, my favorite comes in the third set. She takes a backhand at the service line and pretty much telegraphs what she’s going to do. Venus herself is inside the baseline, she appears to know exactly what’s coming, and she’s seen her opponent do it to her a dozen times already. Yet she still can’t track the ball down. Date-Krumm’s shot is just too good.

—But if this match was a perfect showcase for what Date-Krumm does well, it eventually did the same for her opponent. Venus is down 1-5 before she begins to find any semblance of her game. At that point, most players would bow to the law of averages, lose the first set quickly, and start over in the second—and that would be the smart move. Not for Venus. She hits an ace at 1-5 that seems to spark her; soon it’s 5-all. Later, she goes down 2-6 in the tiebreaker; again, this would be throw-in-the-towel time for most players. Again, Venus refuses to do that. She gets back to 6-6, and then watches as a soft, mishit Date-Krumm passing shot catches a millimeter of the sideline. Finally, it’s too much even for Venus, and she nets a backhand to lose the set.

Still, if you're looking for an example of why she’s been a champion, don’t look at her serve or her ground strokes or even her legs. It’s Venus's simple, unshakeable belief that she can always win that has made her who she is.

—And of course, most players would have been devastated by losing a first set after coming from so far behind. Venus shrugs it off immediately and begins to play better. She bombs aces in the controlled indoor conditions, and she catches up to Date-Krumm’s flat lasers. Judging by these highlights, Venus rose to this particular challenge and played some of her best tennis of the year. Her forehand, at times a liability, was cracking.

—A word on the roof. It’s not as noticeable when you watch on TV, but it changes everything about Centre Court. I know that’s obvious to a degree, but only when the roof closes do you realize how much of Centre Court and its atmosphere depends on the sky, and the way the top of the stadium frames it. It really isn’t the same court when it’s closed. Think of it as very expensive environmental art; Christo could hardly expect to create something so effortlessly space-transforming.

—Back to the match. What may be most remarkable is how these two women sustain their energy and level of play, and how each push the other higher. You might have thought that Venus would fade after losing the first set (as long as you forgot that is was Venus, that is), and you might have thought the same of the 41-year-old Date-Krumm once the early razzle-dazzle ended and she lost the second set. Not today. By the end of the third, Date-Krumm wasn’t just skimming all over the court, she was fist-pumping and yelling “Come on!” (or the Japanese equivalent) after winning points.

—The match in a nutshell: At 6-6 in the third set, Venus began the game with a 122-m.p.h. bomb for an ace. On the next point, she hit one 120; those two miles per hour were all Date-Krumm needed, apparently, because she smoked a return and won the point.

—Another measure of how far these players were pushed, and how far out on the high wire they were. At 7-6, 15-30 in the third, Venus did something she very rarely does: Looked pleadingly to her box after missing a shot.

—It finally ends when Date-Krumm can’t quite pull a running backhand pass onto the sideline—she had made one by a millimeter to win the first set; she misses this one by roughly the same distance.

The match didn’t finish with a winner, but it was a fitting conclusion nonetheless. Williams and Date-Krumm entertained the tennis world by going all-out all afternoon. After three hours and three sets, a millimeter was all that separated them.

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