No. 5 of '13: Queen for More Than a Day

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When Serena Williams powered back to beat Petra Kvitova 3-6, 6-3, 7-5 in the quarterfinals in Doha in February, she became the oldest woman, at 31 years and four months, to claim the No. 1 ranking. Serena’s return to the top was inevitable; she had been utterly dominant for the previous 10 months. But it also happened against an appropriate opponent. At the start of 2012, Kvitova had been the player who appeared to be on the verge of taking over No. 1; fans of the WTA looked forward to the possibility of a future rivalry between Serena and the Czech. Since that point, though, it has been virtually all Serena. The past has, once again, turned into the future for the women’s tour.

In Doha we got a taste of what might have been, and what might still be, between Williams and Kvitova. The latter is one of the few players who can put Serena on defense—the American spent much of this match shaking her head at the uncanny depth of Kvitova’s shots, and she praised her game afterward. The 18-minute highlight reel above is impressive; the bombs never stop dropping. Here are a few thoughts on that fireworks show in Doha. It’s ball-bashing in the best sense of the term.


—Kvitova begins the match with an ace, and she goes on to hit 14 of them on the day. Her strategy on that shot was go big or go home—she also committed eight double faults, most of which you don’t see in this clip. Worse, though, was when she hit them. On serve at 3-4 in the second set and still seemingly in control of the match, Kvitova started by sending two hard-hit second serves over the service line. That was all the opening needed by Serena. Struggling and on her heels to that point, she suddenly became more aggressive, broke serve, and held at love to send it to a third set. Kvitova went too big at the wrong time, and then she went home.

—Last week I wrote that Sabine Lisicki’s heavy hitting at Wimbledon planted a rare seed of doubt in Serena’s head, and Kvitova does the same thing here. Williams was recovering from an ankle injury and was developing a cold that week, but there still wasn’t much she could have done with the shots that Kvitova was hitting. Serena spends a good portion of this match staring at marks near the baseline and shaking her head in disbelief. It’s this kind of play that makes you realize again that Kvitova, Wimbledon champ just two years ago, can still put it all together against anyone. 

—Kvitova is a fairly shy person, but she isn’t intimidated by Serena. The back and forth of their shots is matched at times by the back and forth of their exhortations. At 5-2 in the first, Serena lets out a shriek to end all shrieks, but Kvitova comes right back with a blood-curdling “Pjod!” of her own.

“She’s making it look so easy.”

“She’s measuring her shots well.”

“She doesn’t look like she’s going to have a lapse.”

This is what the commentators had to say about Kvitova as she kept up her good form in the second set. Which is unfortunate, because if you’ve ever watched her play, you know that this is the exact moment when Petra does have a lapse. And she does here.

—On the surface, this would seem to be a straightforward war of the power hitters; whoever gets hot at the right time is going to win. Yet Serena pulls ahead with a strategic shift in the third set. She begins to exploit Kvitova’s speed disadvantage by moving her wide of the sidelines. Kvitova can hang with Williams shot-wise, but not foot-wise. 

—First, though, Serena had to lose her head before she could find it. In her mid-match emotional twists, her alternating moments of tension and relaxation, she often reminds me of another top player of the moment, Novak Djokovic. Serena went down 1-4 in the third set, nearly burst into tears, and threatened to smash her racquet. In the next game, though, you could see her gather herself and make a concentrated, positive effort with each swing. She began to play better, calmer tennis, while Kvitova’s aggressive serving came back to haunt her again. Up 4-2, she double-faulted to give the break back.

—The key game came with Serena serving at 3-4. She didn’t face any break points, but she hit aces at 30-30 and deuce to get through it. From there, her confidence returned. One reason that, ranking aside, Serena has been the top women’s player for so long is that she can calm herself down and stop making errors at the exact moment when the rest of us—including Petra Kvitova—would be tightening up and making more of them. That’s what happened in the last three games. Hitting with a perfect mix of power and margin, serving brilliantly, and leaving the emotional turmoil behind, Serena made closing look easy. 

—She finishes this one with a love hold that's punctuated by—do I even have to say it?—an ace on match point. Serena, who had said for years that she doesn’t care about being No. 1—I’m “so over it” was her latest version of the refrain—looks pretty pleased to be there again. She lifts her index finger in triumph, lets the tears flow again, and commands the spotlight like the world-champion diva she is. When she finally gets to the net to shake hands, she looks at Kvitova as if to say, "Oh, you're still here?"

Then she scribbles on the camera in front of her, “Serena is No. 1.” Why wouldn’t she feel good about being in that spot again? Everyone likes to get back where they belong.

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