INDIAN WELLS, Calif.—Venus Williams armed her first serves into the court, then disarmed her opponent by hitting through it. The 38-year-old looked every bit of her age one moment, and half of it the next.
It was early in her quarterfinal, and it was impressive. But it was the kind of unsustainable contradiction a tennis match tends to resolve over the course of its unwavering beat, each point another opportunity to expose a player’s true form.
And when said opponent is Angelique Kerber, the reveal tends to happen quicker. The German’s counterpunching arsenal is as relentless as Sinatra tunes on Rat Pack Night, both of which were true on Thursday evening in Indian Wells.
So when Williams led Kerber by a break of serve midway though the first set, I remained skeptical. Her service speed had quickened, and she was still finding the corners and catching the lines with her timeless groundstrokes. But Kerber tests an aggressive adversary like no other WTA player. Fire a forehand down the line? Do it again, and again, and again. Boom a backhand? Kerber will use that pace against you—just ask Serena Williams, who has twice lost to the court-covering savant in Grand Slam finals.
“Venus is a player with a lot of experience, and [can change] the rhythm,” said Kerber, whose key to the first set was simply “staying positive.”
In the end, it was Kerber who played the hits—her repelling, short-swing backhand; her crosscourt lefty forehand; her sweeping serves; and, most of all, her peerless defense—long enough to earn a 7-6 (3), 6-3 victory. She’ll face Belinda Bencic in the semifinals.
“I can trust my legs, and run for every ball,” Kerber said. “I still try to improve my offense.”
If the 31-year-old does that, she’ll still have time to collect another three major titles in addition to her Australian Open, Wimbledon and US Open trophies. But while her offense may have looked feeble at times against the red-lining Williams, she hit enough high notes to overcome the early break deficit, and eventually took the set in a tiebreak after failing to serve it out at 5-4. The constant pressure was enough to frustrate the normally unflappable Williams, who was visibly frustrated in a tiebreak where she always played from behind.
When Kerber took 40-0 leads in each of her first three service games of the second set, it was clear that she’d found the groove that suffocates even the greatest of players. It demanded a perfect response from Williams in each of her service games, and despite saving loads of break points, she succumbed at 2-3, giving Kerber a lead she wouldn’t give back.
“I played the best I could here,” said Williams, who has lost in the quarterfinals or semifinals in each of her last three trips to Indian Wells.
Down 2-5 in the second set, Williams struck an 82 m.p.h. first serve, yet won the point with a serve-and-volley. It was a kamikaze mission, an approach borne of determination and desperation.
It was late in her quarterfinal, and it was impressive. And Kerber was ready to play her time-tested encore.