Petra Kvitova edges Serena Williams in two fierce hours in Cincinnati

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WATCH—Daily Serve from Day 3 in Cincinnati: 

On Sunday in Montreal we saw two middleweights, Simona Halep and Sloane Stephens, begin a new rivalry. For nearly three hours, they jabbed and landed combinations, until one of them finally fell on a TKO in the 15th round.

On Tuesday in Cincinnati, we saw two heavyweight hitters, Petra Kvitova and Serena Williams, continue a rivalry that could have been. They threw nothing but haymakers at each other for two crisp hours and three fiercely contested sets.

After a decade on tour together, Kvitova and Serena had played just six times, and Serena had won five of them. That they had to face each other in the second round in Cincy was bad news for them, but good news for fans who had always wished to see them go toe to toe more often. And toe to toe they went on Tuesday. Neither woman tempered her go-for-broke style on offense, and neither woman backed off the baseline on defense. This was zero-sum, no-frills, hit-winners-or-go-home tennis.

Kvitova began at her scintillating peak. When she wasn’t hitting aces with her hook serve in the ad court, she was stretching Serena to the limit with her T serve in the deuce court. When she wasn’t pounding her returns with depth down the middle, she was pounding 80-plus-M.P.H bullets into the corners. And when she wasn’t pummeling forehand winners down the line, she was reflexing backhand winners crosscourt. By the time she broke Serena a second time at 3-5 in the first set, Kvitova was swinging for the fences while maintaining pinpoint control.

That’s a hard balance to sustain, and Kvitova couldn’t do it for long. Slowly, imprecision crept into her shots. In the second game of the second set, she sent three returns just over the baseline. At 1-1, she double-faulted twice and was broken. At 1-2, she had a break point, but drilled a forehand into the net.

Serena saw her opening, and belted her way right through it. The second set quickly became a mirror image of the first. Instead of Kvitova, it was Serena who was hitting the aces, the return winners, the forehand winners, and the reflex short-angle backhand winners. The topspin lob winners, too.

Serena has always been extra vigilant against Kvitova, in part, perhaps, because she really doesn’t like to see someone hit the ball past her, and Kvitova is one of the few women who can do it for long stretches against her. By the start of the third set, it seemed that Serena’s vigilance would pay off again. She broke Kvitova in the opening game, when the Czech drilled another forehand into the net.

But Petra’s twitter nickname isn’t P3tra for nothing; she knows how to give sets away, and she knows how to take them back. After bottoming out with that netted forehand in the first game of the third, she relaxed and took command again. At 0-1, she broke Serena with a strong return. At 2-2, she held at love. At 3-2, she let loose with two screaming “POJD!”s and broke again. At 4-2, she held with two forehand winners. Now it was Kvitova who was landing all the first punches.

With Kvitova serving for the match at 5-3, Serena, as expected, raised her game. But she couldn’t raise it far enough to counter Kvitova’s serve; if that shot wasn’t winning the point outright for Kvitova, it was opening up the court for her forehand. Serena saved one match point with a brilliant return, but she couldn’t save a second, and Kvitova had a well-earned 6-3, 2-6, 6-3 win.

You wouldn’t mind seeing these two slug it out again, would you? Maybe in about three weeks? Under the lights? In the biggest ring of all, in New York? Better yet, maybe they could make up for lost time and play every couple of weeks or so.

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