There’s something about the way that Karolina Muchova bounces the ball as she gets ready to serve. There’s a calm, composed sense of purpose to the way she does it. The more I see her play, the more that small gesture sums up her appealingly thoughtful and controlled game.
The first time many of us noticed that game was during her surprise run to the quarterfinals at Wimbledon last year (was it really just last year?). During that fortnight, I joined the chorus of observers predicting great things for the Czech, despite the fact that she was already 23 (and is now already 24). So far, Muchova hasn’t lived up to the tennis-hipster hype. Coming into the US Open, she was 3-5 this season, and still ranked outside the Top 20. “I wasn’t feeling my shots this year,” was how Muchova explained her plateau.
She was feeling them on Tuesday night in her 6-3, 7-5 win over Venus Williams. Muchova was sharp from the start, and the better player for most of the night. She beat Williams with her serve; Muchova had eight aces to just one for Venus. She beat her with her ground strokes; Muchova hit 27 winners to 18 for Venus. She beat her at the net; Muchova was 11 of 13 there. She beat her on the return; Muchova earned 15 break points. And she beat her when it mattered; Muchova broke Venus when the American served for the second set at 5-4, and broke her again at 6-5 for the match.
But statistics don’t do justice to the way Muchova plays the game and wins her points. She does it with good instincts, and what used to be called court sense. She knows when to slice her backhand and when to drive it. When to ghost forward a few steps and surprise her opponent by taking her forehand from inside the baseline. Unlike so many of her grip-and-rip peers, Muchova knows how to carve an old-fashioned approach shot into the corner, follow it forward, and cut off the volley.
It was too much for the 40-year-old Williams tonight. Venus had trained hard during the break and even made adjustments to her serve. After playing well in her first event back, in Lexington, she must have had high hopes for this Open. Perhaps that’s why she was more visibly frustrated than she normally is when things aren’t going well. Rather than her usual poker face, Venus wore a look of disbelief for much of this match. She did everything she could to turn the tide in her favor, of course, and she seemed to have succeeded when she went up a break in the second set. But Muchova settled down again at 4-5 and ran right past Venus at the finish line.
Muchova admitted to feeling the nerves as she tried to close out her legendary opponent in their first meeting. For the most part, though, she looked as composed and purposeful as she does when she’s bouncing the ball before her serve. Early in the second set, Muchova hit what looked to be a second-serve ace to hold, and walked to the sideline. After a review, the call was overturned and the ace became a double fault. Muchova looked briefly annoyed. Then she walked back to the baseline and hit an ace past Venus for real.