No. 3: Turf War

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Petra Kvitova’s 5-7, 7-6 (2), 7-5 win over Venus Williams at Wimbledon comes in at No. 3 in our countdown of the 10 best matches of 2014, but it was my favorite to watch. That may be a bit of live-match bias; I sat in Centre Court for the whole thing, on one of those beautiful June days at the All England Club, when the late-afternoon sun comes in and out and in and out, before finally deciding to stick around and see what happens.

What happened was old-fashioned grass-court tennis, the kind that many say isn’t possible anymore. The highlights above give you a sense of the match’s quality; it’s one long trail of winners, with hardly any other shots in between. The match was close, it was taut, it was a deadly serious fight between two women who love and want this tournament more than any other. And it was the closest thing that the ladies’ draw got to a final: Venus was the only player to take a set from Kvitova.

Here’s a look at the clip above. One of the pleasures of doing a Top 10 list each year is the chance to remember early-round matches like this one, and to keep them, at least for the moment, from being entirely lost to history.

*****

—You see the winners, but this one also had the unique tension of a great grass-court match, one that comes from knowing that, as routine and inevitable as most holds of serve will be, each set will likely be decided by a single shot, a single mistake, a single moment of brilliance, a single, minute-long slip. The winner will be the player who is ready for that moment, but no one in the building will have any idea when it will come. Good grass-court tennis is defined by a sense of danger lurking just beneath the surface, and this match, for all of its visible brilliance, had that sense. Two of the sets ended as I described, in a hurry, after a tiny surprising, slip-up from one player.

—Grass-court tennis is also about the serve, and this match was as well. There were a total of three break points in 46 service games, and each woman was broken just once, to end the first and third sets. Kvitova hit 11 aces, Venus six, and each won three quarters of the points when they got their first serves in. You can see how each woman uses her serve, whether it's wide, down the T, or into the body, as a set-up shot. Winning the point is often just a matter of placing the next ball safely into the open court.

—Yet this one wasn’t just about the serve, as Wimbledon had once been, in the days of Krajicek and Ivanisevic. Kvitova and Venus engaged in brass-tacks rallies; every chance for a winner was taken, and more points were decided by good shots than bad. The average ground-stroke speed was 72 m.p.h. for both women, which happened to be exactly the average ground-stroke speed of the two men who played in the match on Centre Court before them that day, Novak Djokovic and Gilles Simon. Yet neither woman suffered from the extended spells of erratic play that have doomed them in the past. 

“I really wanted to win today, definitely,” Kvitova said. “I mean, I was very nervous before the match. I knew that she’s a five-time champion here and she loves to play on the Centre Court as much as me.”

“Today I did the best I could,” Venus said. “I think she played well at every single moment. There weren’t a lot of opportunities for either one of us. She played well, I gave it my all. Sometimes it’s not enough."

“In those matches, it’s just the percentage,” Venus continued. “Just trying to figure out how to hopefully come out on top, take your chances. There really aren’t any chances, ever, so...”

Is there a better definition of a grass-court match, and a grass-court mentality, than that? To find a chance when there are no chances.

—I forgot how close Venus was to winning this one. She was up 5-4 and 6-5 in the second set (with Kvitova serving), and she got to 0-30 and 30-30 on Kvitova’s serve at 4-4 and 5-5 in the third. As I wrote at the time, I thought Venus, who always looks so much more imposing on Centre Court, was in better form than Kvitova. And I think overall she was the superior player. After saving a break point in the opening game, she didn’t face another until match point, 23 service games later. 

“I don’t think I was the better player today actually all the match,” Kvitova said, “but I just try to win the important points in the tiebreaker. I just think mentally I was a little bit stronger than her today.”

—While I also thought Venus was in better form, I never thought Kvitova would lose. She already had her “Pojd!” at maximum volume by the second game. By the third set, she was winning points not just with power, but with angled volleys and drop shots. 

—In the end, it was the 34-year-old Venus who showed vulnerability, the vulnerability of age that has cost her close matches in recent years. She played a poor tiebreaker, and a bad final game. The match, like so many other grass-court matches, is over just like that. Venus received a rousing ovation afterward, and she bristled when she was asked about retirement later.

“For some reason in tennis we do that to our players,” Williams said. “It’s weird. We don’t encourage them to stick around. It’s like, ‘Get out of here.’ So I’m not gettin’ out of here.”

Kvitova was glowing in her presser. She said it was the best match she had played since she won Wimbledon in 2011. Like Venus and so many other past champions, she thinks of Centre Court as her house. On this day the two of them played the kind of match that would have made those old grass masters proud.


The Top 10 Matches of 2014

No. 1: Djokovic d. Federer at Wimbledon
No. 2: Sharapova d. Halep at Roland Garros
No. 3: Kvitova d. V. Williams at Wimbledon
No. 4: S. Williams d. Wozniacki at WTA Finals
No. 5: Wawrinka d. Djokovic at Australian Open
No. 6: Murray d. Robredo at Valencia
No. 7: Federer d. Wawrinka at ATP World Tour Finals
No. 8: Federer d. Monfils at U.S. Open
No. 9: Kvitova d. Kerber at Fed Cup
No. 10: Nishikori d. Ferrer at Madrid

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