Venus Williams and Angelique Kerber should always go down to the wire, shouldn't they? And then go a little farther while they're at it. They're a perfect match: On one side you have Venus the attacker, who never takes less than a full-throttle cut at the ball; on the other side you have Kerber the defender, the game’s premier moving wallboard. On both sides of the net, you have players who love the fight.
Fight they both did for two hours and 25 minutes on Thursday night in Montreal, before the 34-year-old Venus prevailed with one last forehand winner, and one last last scream of exhilaration and exhaustion, 6-3, 3-6, 6-4.
There was little reason beforehand to believe that this would be the result: Kerber is eight years younger, ranked 19 spots higher, was 3-1 in their head-to-head coming in, and has been playing well. But a healthy Venus, as she continues to remind us two decades after she launched herself on tour, can still play—and, more important, still compete—with anyone on the right night.
The match began with some foreshadowing: Venus, after saving break points, eventually won a 12-minute opening service game. For the next two hours, the two traded the momentum back and forth. Losing that first game had an immediate negative effect on Kerber. Listless and impatient, she went down 0-5 before deciding that she would need to do more than retrieve against Venus on this night. Just when the first set looked out of reach, she took control of the rallies and turned the match around completely. Rather than waiting for Venus to miss, Kerber began to counterpunch and use the American’s pace against her. The German would lose that set, but she would win six of the next seven games to go up 3-0 in the second. Six games later, she had leveled the match at a set apiece.
Again, Kerber had put herself in the favorite’s position. How was Venus going to outlast her younger opponent in a third set? Williams seemed to be wondering the same thing in her opening service game, when she double-faulted four times and was broken. A few minutes later, Venus faced two more break points at 0-2. But she saved them both, the second with a forehand winner that gave her the momentum back for the first time in an hour.
“The longer the match went, the crazier the rallies got,” Venus said afterward. From 2-2 in the third set on, with neither player able to pull away, the match turned into an all-court scrap, and the rallies grew longer and louder. Each woman earned break points, and each saved them in turn—Venus, firing her first serve at top speed from start to finish, would save 15 of 20 break points she faced; Kerber would saved nine of 15. But by the end, neither could hold. Williams broke at 4-3 and reached match point on her serve in the next game, but even her loudest shriek of the night couldn’t get a forehand over the net, and Kerber broke back.
The match reached its peak of the intensity in the final game. Williams attacked and Kerber defended, as the two traded points back and forth. The best of them ended with a turn-back-the-clock stretch forehand volley winner from Venus that almost—almost—inspired a first-pump from her. On Venus’ third match point, Kerber took the attack and Venus, turning back the clock again, retrieved along the baseline. When Venus counterpunched with a crosscourt forehand, the German was left out of position, pinned in the corner. This time, with the court wide open, Venus didn’t miss. She closed a satisfying, Top 10 win with a fittingly full-throttle down-the-line forehand winner. She looked exhausted as she walked to the net, but she had just enough energy to raise her fist and clench it.