When certain big-serving, no-returning male players face off, the standard line among fans is, “Let’s just get to the tiebreaker.” When Petra Kvitova and Venus Williams play, we can be even more specific. “Let’s just get to the third-set tiebreaker” would have been apropos for their early-rounder on Wednesday in Doha.
That’s not just because their three previous matches had gone to a final set. And it’s not just because their last one, in Tokyo last fall, ended in a deciding tiebreaker. It’s also because the two women waited until the match was deep into the third and close to two hours old before they brought out their best tennis. Over the last half-hour, what had been a predictably unpredictable contest turned into a dramatic one. Each woman saved at least one match point before Kvitova finally prevailed on her third, 6-2, 2-6, 7-6 (7).
Through the first two sets, though, not much happened to change Kvitova’s and Venus’ well-earned reputations for erratic play. Williams started sluggishly, as if she was destined to have one of the off-days that Sjogren’s syndrome has made so depressingly familiar in recent years. She was broken at love to open the match, and again at 2-2 in the first; even when Venus broke Kvitova early in the second, she gave it right back at love again with four weary-looking errors.
Leave it to Petra, though, to keep a reeling opponent from falling off the cliff. At 2-3 in the second, Kvitova was broken again, and the errors flowed from there. A few minutes later, Kvitova double-faulted to lose the second set. Both players “littered up the stat sheet,” as they say. Kvitova hit 35 winners, made 38 errors, and was six for 16 on break points. Venus was even more mistake-prone, hitting 28 winners against 41 errors, double-faulting eight times, and converting six of 13 break points. The early stages of this match can be summed up by the disturbing fact that in the second set, Venus hit four winners, made 11 errors, and still won it 6-2.
It looked as if she would go on to win the third by a similar score as well. Venus recorded her first love service game of the match to make it 4-1 in the third, and she reached break point three times in the next game. On the third of those, Venus appeared to have the match sealed as she drove Kvitova into her backhand corner and moved up for a putaway. But instead of belting a sure forehand winner, Venus tried a drop shot instead. It landed in the net, Kvitova came back to hold, and not long after the Czech was serving for the match at 5-4. But that would have been far too easy and straightforward for her. After Venus fought off a match point in a tough rally, Kvitova double-faulted to make it 5-5.
From there, the match rose in both quality as well as desperation. Venus saved three break points at 5-5—she may have given away the lead, buy she wasn’t giving away the match. In the ensuing tiebreaker, Kvitova matched Williams’ shot-making and determination. Through 7-7, neither player was ahead by more than one point, and they traded big body serves and ground-stroke winners. Venus saved a match point with a strong forehand at 5-6; Kvitova saved one with a strong forehand of her own at 6-7. Finally, at 7-8, Venus’ last forehand sailed long.
In Doha in 2013, Kvitova lost after being up 4-1 in the third against Venus’ sister Serena, and she said she thought of that match when she was down by the same score today. This may not have been the classic that one was, but it ended on a high note. Williams will try to banish that fateful drop shot from her mind, while Kvitova will move on to play her countrywoman, Lucie Safarova.