INDIAN WELLS, Calif.—When Venus Williams, after nearly two hours and thirty minutes of gripping tennis at the BNP Paribas Open at Indian Wells late Saturday afternoon, looked back on what had just taken place, she could have easily been talking about what happened the night before, when her sister Serena was given the task of facing Victoria Azarenka in her opening-round match. That Williams test was of the highest quality, a 7-5, 6-3 throwback which showcased all of what these mothers have and continue to offer their fortunate sport.
Not 24 hours later, the talk of the desert was what Venus did. Approaching her 39th birthday, Venus' 4-6, 7-5, 6-4 comeback over third seed Petra Kvitova was an early gift for fans watching inside Stadium 1 and on televisions and devices around the world.
"The match we played was definitely worthy of a final," said Venus afterward. "It's not ideal for her to see me in her part of the draw. I don't think anybody wants that."
Ranked No. 36, Venus was likely going to face a seed early; unfortunately for her, Kvitova represented one of the most daunting challenges. The Czech had a 4-2 career edge against Venus, but they hadn’t faced off since the 2017 US Open.
A 5-2 mark seemed likely with Kvitova in full control of the match early. She steamrolled Williams to take a set and 3-0 lead. Williams had slogged through her first match in a three-set win over Andrea Petkovic, and seemed out of sorts again.
But while she was being outclassed, Venus nonetheless sourced hope from the California crowd, behind her in this battle of fan favorites. She stopped the bleeding to get two games, and managed to save two break points at 2-4 to avoid a likely insurmountable deficit. She stepped up her level, forcing Kvitova to close the match instead of giving it to her.
"Honestly, it seemed like I played even better when I was down," said Venus. "I really didn't have any other choice because she was playing so well and serving so well. So it's nice to know that in that sort of situation I can still play and just lift my level."
As Venus fans know, when she’s on, she’s really on, but when she’s off, she can look disastrous. To her credit, when things weren’t going her way against Kvitova, Venus dug her heels in. Kvitova had chances to force a tiebreaker in the second, but Venus held her off.
"Well, it was such a weird match, to be honest," Kvitova said. "Suddenly I was leading in the second, but somehow I just gave her a chance again to be back in the match, and she took it. Suddenly, she just started to play better, I started to play worse. I really played bad. I want to swear, but I will not."
The level in the third set was far more even, but Kvitova once again held the edge at 4-3. Yet her normally sharp lefty serve deserted her at this crucial stage. At 4-5, she had two game points, but failed to hold, even double faulting for the 10th time of the day.
"It's a game which you are playing with yourself; not with the opponent at all," Kvitova said. " That's what I lost today. I lost with myself. It's probably more frustrating that I lost to opponent, but I don't know. And in the end of the match, she definitely played better than me."
Williams is considering a living legend for good reason. But even she needed a little luck on this day, and she got it with a net cord after a long rally at deuce with the finish line near. She closed the match out on her very first match point, letting out an exuberant scream of triumph.
"Definitely being down in those last two sets, it's definitely not easy to turn it around. That's for sure," Williams said. "But I like to also know that I have opportunities all the time and that I can create those. So even when it's not looking great, I know that the match isn't over yet."
There was also a giddy signature Venus twirl for the crowd, which eagerly lapped it up. The comeback and celebration was the spirit and attitude of a 2017 Venus, the one that reached two Grand Slam finals and finished inside the Top 5.
"It was just a fun moment," said Venus.
The fun continues on Sunday, against Christina McHale.