Making Hay

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Photo by Anita Aguilar

WIMBLEDON, ENGLAND—What does quality grass-court tennis look like these days? Many people might say that such a thing isn’t possible here anymore, since the turf was made hardier and the players began to let the ball bounce on it. Until 10 years ago, Wimbledon tennis was synonymous with serve-and-volley tennis, and in many people’s minds that’s the way it always should be.

If that's the case, what are we to make of the third-round match that Petra Kvitova and Venus Williams played on Centre Court today? It certainly had the look, the feel, and the atmosphere of vintage Wimbledon tennis. In their all-whites, Kvitova and Williams could have been just about any of the women who have done battle on this same patch of green, under the same late-afternoon sun, before the same enthusiastic packed house, for decades. 

More important, the match also had the unique tension of an old-fashioned grass-court match. It comes from knowing that, as routine and inevitable as most holds of serve will be, each set will likely be decided by a single shot, a single mistake, a single moment of brilliance, a single, minute-long mental slip. The winner will be the player who is ready for that moment, but no one in the building will have any idea when it will come. A sense of danger lurking just beneath the safe surface of things is what defines tennis on grass, not whether the players are hitting volleys or ground strokes. Often, it seems that someone will win a match simply because a match must have an end, and it must have a winner.

And that’s the sense that Kvitova and Williams gave us today. The Czech’s 5-7, 7-6 (2), 7-5 win was controlled by the shot that has controlled so many matches on this court in the past: The serve. There were a total of three break points in 46 service games, and each woman was broken just once, at the end of the first and third sets. Kvitova hit 11 aces, Venus six, and each won three-quarters of points on their first serves. 

Yet this wasn’t just a rock fight, it wasn’t a return to the one-and-done days of Krajicek and Ivanisevic. Kvitova and Venus engaged in high-quality, brass-tacks rallies; every opening for a winner was taken, and more points were decided by good shots than bad. The average ground-stroke speed was 72 M.P.H. for both women; that was exactly the same as the average ground-stroke speed of the two men who played on Centre Court before them, Novak Djokovic and Gilles Simon. Yet neither Kvitova nor Venus suffered any of the extended spells of erratic play that have doomed them in the past. These were two former Wimbledon champions playing on their favorite surface. When Li Na, the highest seed in their section, lost before they went on, the stakes became even higher.

“I think the match just showed how great was the battle from both of us,” Kvitova said. “I really wanted to win today, definitely. I mean, I was very nervous before the match. I knew that she’s a five-time champion here and she loves to play on the Centre Court as well as me.”

“Today I did the best I could,” Venus said. “I think she played well at every single moment. There weren’t a lot of opportunities for either one of us. She played well, I gave it my all. Sometimes it’s not enough.”

“In those matches, it’s just the percentage,” Venus continued. “Just trying to figure out how to hopefully come out on top, take your chances. There really weren’t any chances ever, so...”

Is there a better definition of a grass-court match, and a grass-court mentality, than that? To find a chance when there are no chances.

From the start, I thought that Venus, who always becomes a more composed and imposing player on Centre Court, was in better form than Petra; in the opening game, Venus held off a break point with a strong down the line backhand. And I think she remained the better player for the majority of the match; she wouldn’t face another break point until match point, 23 service games later.

Yet early on I also became convinced that Kvitova would win. In the second game, she went down 0-15. When she hit a passing-shot winner to make it 15-15, she fist-pumped and let out a shriek as if she were already in a final-set tiebreaker. It was so early, but Kvitova was already so dialed in. She has talked about how much her close loss in the quarters to Kirsten Flipkens here last year, when the title was ripe for the taking, has haunted her. She radiated a quiet determination today, and that’s what she believed won her the match.

“I don’t think I was the better player today actually all the match,” Kvitova said, “but I just try to win the important points in the tiebreaker, then I just tried to wait for some break point. I just think the mentally side I was a little bit stronger than her today. That’s why I think I won, because of that.”

The tiebreaker that Kvitova mentioned was indeed the key, and it included that unexpected yet crucial moment that always comes on grass. On the first point, Venus spun in what was almost certainly her weakest second serve of the match, and Kvitova jumped on it for a backhand return winner. When she followed with a volley winner and service winner to go up 3-0, she had, for the first time, caught up to Venus. For the first time, Kvitova’s game had caught up to her will. For the first time, Venus showed vulnerability. She would lose the tiebreaker, and the set, on a double fault.

Venus received a rousing ovation as she walked off. She was, as she always is after defeats these days, disappointed but resilient. She refused to say that she enjoyed the battle for its own sake. That’s loser talk to the Williamses—“the battle is always a little more enjoyable when you win,” she said instead. When she was asked if her walk off Centre Court might have been her last there, she bristled.

“For some reason in tennis we always do that to our players,” Venus said. “It’s weird. We don’t encourage them to stick around. It’s like, 'Get out of here.' So I’m not gettin’ out of here.”

Kvitova was virtually glowing in her presser. She said it was the best match she had played at Wimbledon since she won here in 2011. Like Venus and so many other past champions, she thinks of this place as her house. Today the two of them played the kind of match that would have made those old grass masters proud.

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