“Night and day,” we like to say when we want to emphasize the vast difference between two events. For Venus Williams on Tuesday, the phrase appeared to be a little too on the nose as she began her fourth-round match in Indian Wells.
The previous evening, Venus had been at her commanding best in defeating her sister Serena, 6-3, 6-4. She had served well, and hit her forehand better. Her big gold hoop earrings were the perfect finishing touch to a regal performance.
When Venus came out the next afternoon to face Anastasija Sevastova, though, it looked as if those earrings were the only thing that had made the trip with her. Her forehand lacked the same pop, her movement was sluggish, her velocity on her serve was down, and at 1-1 she double faulted on break point. Worse, Sevastova seemed to have just the right game to torment the still-recovering 37-year-old.
The Latvian sliced, she diced, she dinked, she carved and she dropped—until she had a point on the American’s serve to go up a double break at 4-1. But instead of chiseling another devastating drop shot, Sevastova sliced a routine backhand five feet wide. Insignificant as it appeared to be at the time, this was the opening Venus needed. When she held, new energy flowed into her body.
At 2-4, Venus found her first serve and held at love. At 3-4, she broke after knocking off a volley winner. Finally, at 4-4, Venus realized that she didn’t need to be ultra-aggressive to control the rallies against Sevastova. She could patiently work the point, knowing that her opponent couldn’t hurt her with pace. It was the same realization that Sloane Stephens made at the end of her quarterfinal with Sevastova at the US Open: Sevastova is a counterpuncher who doesn’t love to punch; if all else fails, force her to attack.
Williams vs. Sevastova match point and post-match interview:
But Venus does love to punch, and it was her willingness to go on the attack that won her the most important point of the match, at 6-6 in the first-set tiebreaker. Venus had just double faulted at set point; now it looked as if she had bluffed her way to the net, and Sevastova had called her on it. Sevastova hit a nice, dipping passing shot, but the long and lanky Venus got down, dug the ball out, and sent it straight up in the air. When it landed a foot from the net, and Sevastova couldn’t make the pass, the set was Venus’.
So, in the end, was the match. Again, Sevastova ran out to an early lead in the second set, only to watch as Venus dug her heels in. The American played good defense to break for 2-3; then, at 4-4, she won her first cat-and-mouse point of the match to go up 0-30. Venus had been trying to turn the tables and re-drop a Sevastova drop shot all afternoon. Finally, at break point at 4-4, she pulled it off and won the point with a backhand volley.
Venus huffed and puffed her way to her chair on the changeover, but she had enough to hold one more time and cross the finish line for a 7-6 (6), 6-4 win, and a trip to the quarterfinals, where she’ll face Carla Suarez Navarro.
Great players come through in glamorous, high-stakes matches; but the ones who stick around longest are the ones who can follow up a big win with another, less-glamorous one. Over the last 24 hours, Venus did both. In her case, day didn’t end up looking a whole lot different from night.
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