Serena Williams has so dominated Carla Suarez Navarro in the past that watching a match between them seems almost a sadistic enterprise. But in the third round of Madrid today, Williams found a way to make things surprising if not necessarily interesting in one of her most artless performances in recent memory.
But it tells you something about Williams—as well as about the fundamentals of her match-up with Suarez Navarro—that she still won in a hour-and-a-quarter, 6-2, 6-3.
If you were Suarez Navarro, you had to go into this match hoping that Williams would be sluggish and erratic, and that you also might pop a good number of first serves into play. For she had won a grand total of five games in three previous matches against Williams, and in their most recent engagement, at the 2013 U.S. Open, the diminutive Spaniard had been clobbered, love-and-love.
Suarez Navarro’s hopes came to fruition, but the bad news is that it didn’t appear to make much of a difference, other than allowing her to pad her dismal stats against the top seed in Madrid.
Williams opened with three unforced errors and a double fault that handed Suarez Navarro a game. Alas, Suarez Navarro was unable to capitalize, broken right back as Williams unrolled her non-strategic strategy.
The world No. 14 stands just 5-foot-4, and even proportionately her serve is merely so-so. It was no secret that Williams would feast on that serve, clubbing every return in an attempt to overpower Suarez Navarro or, in the worst case scenario (but still a great one), push her back and put her on the defensive.
Given the limited reach of Suarez Navarro, even her spirited, sometimes downright heroic defense was unable to deal with the strain. But this was a bad day for Williams, as evidenced by the fact that five of the first six games featured break points, and when the smoke cleared Williams led by only 4-2. But while Suarez Navarro was getting a decent number of first serves into play, she was winning the ensuing point under 30 percent of the time.
That’s an abysmal stat, and it was underscored when Suarez Navarro served to stay in the first set at 2-5. Williams unloaded with every return, and despite some spectacular defense, Suarez Navarro found herself at deuce. After hitting a return winner, Williams’ next return forced Suarez Navarro to rush her backhand response. She drove it into the net and lost the set.
Any suspicions that winning the first set ironed out the kinks in Williams’ game were quickly dispelled in the next game—a service break for Suarez Navarro. And while the underdog was once again unable to hold her own serve, she broke Williams yet again to lead the set 2-1.
If a match like this can said to have a turning point, it probably was in the next game. Suarez Navarro threatened to hold for the first time and build on her lead when she jumped ahead 30-love. Williams won the next point. Then, following a brief rally, Williams lofted a poor lob and Suarez Navarro, her chin practically resting on the net-cord, botched a smash by going for an extreme cross-court angle. The ball landed eight feet outside the sideline. It was a ghastly mistake and it ended up costing her the game for 2-all.
Suddenly, the complexion of the match changed. Williams held the next game at love. Improbably, Suarez Navarro replied with a love hold of her own—her first hold of the match. Williams held at love again, then looked like her more familiar self as she attacked Suarez Navarro mercilessly, mixing drive volleys, rally winners, and service returns to break for 5-3. Williams served it out with her third consecutive love game.