Give Serena Williams an opponent with a relatively poor second serve, and then make that player hit a pair of them—both at match point down. What do you think happens?
Well, what happened in today's quarterfinal is that Williams missed both of those returns, first with a backhand and then with a forehand that couldn’t have been teed up for her more tantalizingly. And that helps explain why it took Williams two hours and 41 minutes to vanquish Caroline Wozniacki, against whom the American was 6-1 overall, with a six-set winning streak.
The final score was 4-6, 7-5, 7-5. Both women experienced fluctuations in this protracted struggle; Williams seemingly because of a lingering lack of confidence, Wozniacki apparently because of her vulnerability when forced to serve second balls.
Yet the two women played with a sense of order and form that has been somewhat lacking in the topsy-turvy matches we’d seen so far in Montreal. The idea that both women just wanted to get right down to the nitty-gritty was especially evident in Williams, who had been playing matches that had all the ups and downs of a roller-coaster ride. Here, though, the shotmaking in the early going was crisp, the serving effective, and the internal logic of the match excellent.
Each woman held to two-all, and neither saw a break point until Williams served the fifth game of the first set. A rally-ending down-the-line forehand by Wozniacki and a backhand error by Williams brought up break point, and another backhand error gave the Dane the first break. She consolidated when she drilled a cross-court backhand winner off Williams’ return of an excellent first serve. Wozniacki led, 4-2.
Williams was unable to even pressure Wozniacki’s serve until the eighth game, when a cross-court forehand winner halted her opponent’s march and brought the game to deuce. But a poor forehand service return followed by an unreturned serve to the same side vouchsafed Wozniacki’s lead to 5-3.
By then, patterns in the match were emerging. Williams was having a lot of trouble returning, and Wozniacki was serving well (her 70 percent first-serve conversion rate is among the best on the WTA tour). Moreover, the No. 11 seed was moving beautifully and hitting penetrating, positive, rally shots—as well as playing her familiar, outstanding defense. Least likely of all, Williams was having a lot of trouble finding her range, especially on the backhand side. She did manage to hold for 4-5, and it was time to see if Wozniacki could close the deal.
After she did, things became even more complicated for Williams. An inspired Wozniacki managed an early break in the second set to lead 2-1, then fought off Williams’ third and fourth break points of the match. Wozniacki went on to hold at the one hour mark for 3-1, and it seemed as if the threat she posed to Williams was indeed real.
The women continued to hold serve until the eighth game, when Wozniacki, who had been winning more of her own second-serve points than ever, blinked. She started the 4-3 game with a double fault, and Williams then tagged her 27th winner of the match (to 11 by Wozniacki) with her forehand. Wozniacki sliced a backhand into the net and at break point Williams unloaded yet another forehand winner, this time a service return.
With the reset button firmly hit, the players traded holds before Williams held again for 6-5. By then, her game looked dialed in and she was beginning to feast on Wozniacki serves, as well as any ball left short. Suddenly, Williams was returning well again, even when Wozniacki hit big first serves at her body.
Serving to reach a tiebreaker, Wozniacki couldn’t build a comfortable lead. From 30-all she reached game point, after which Williams hit the statement shot of the day—an inside-out forehand return winner (on a second serve) that brought the game to deuce. A missed down-the-line forehand gave Williams a set point, and a down-the-line backhand error by Wozniacki surrendered it.
Although Wozniacki is looking more and more like a resurgent player who has rediscovered her relish for the game, it’s fair to say that at this juncture Williams usually puts down the hammer, no matter who it is across the net. When she broke Wozniacki to lead 2-0 it certainly seemed she might steamroll the underdog. But in keeping with her recent struggles, Williams then was broken right back.
Two holds later, Williams broke again to take a 4-2 lead. But her attempt to consolidate the break ended in disaster despite winning the first two points—and owning the best serve in women’s tennis. At 30-all in that game, she hit a double fault, and Wozniacki broke back for the second time in the set when Williams made a down-the-line backhand error. Back on serve, Wozniacki then held for 4-all.
The ensuing games were tense; it really was difficult to feel confident in either player, Wozniacki because of the quality of her opponent and the vulnerability of her serve, Williams because of how unsure and tentative she so often appeared. At times, Williams seemed semi-paralyzed with indecision, which explains why Wozniacki was able to win so many points when she changed the direction of the rally.
Neither woman had what it took to make that critical break until the 12th and final game. With Wozniacki serving, Williams bolted to a 15-40 lead, then wasted those two match points as described above. But from deuce, she atoned for her previous sins with a forehand service return winner, and the third match point ended the knock-down, drag-out affair as Wozniacki ended a rally by slicing the ball out.
The winners to unforced errors comparison tells an interesting story. Williams had twice as many as Wozniacki in both departments—51 to 23 winners, 53 to 25 unforced errors. At the end of the day, the match was decided by Wozniacki’s second serve, and Williams’ service return.