Jonathan Newman and James Rogers are the hosts of The Body Serve Tennis Podcast. In the The Body Serve Diary, Jonathan and James write conversationally about the various happenings in the wild world of tennis.
Serena Williams and Petra Kvitova should be -- or perhaps, could be -- the premier rivalry of women’s tennis in the 2010s. Serena is, well, Serena, owner of 23 Grand Slam singles titles and the most feared first serve in women’s tennis history. Petra’s game can peak at such a deliriously high level that competitors have called her “unplayable,” especially at Wimbledon. A sustained rivalry between the two could be the platonic ideal of women’s power tennis, but they have met only seven times, with Williams winning five.
JAMES: We’ve been uncommonly lucky with these night sessions at Cincinnati so far: Djokovic and Serena on Monday, and Federer and Serena-Petra on Tuesday. My thoughts are still somewhat scattered from the excellent Serena-Petra match last night, partly because it’s a shame one of these women had to go out so early in the draw. But, the fact remains that this rivalry is more about what could have been than what has been.
Serena and Petra have met only seven times, with Serena winning five. We’ve seen classics between Venus and Petra, especially at 2014 Wimbledon, but it’s rare that Serena and Petra’s paths have crossed when both are peaking.
Everything about this matchup excites me: the righty vs. lefty serves, each woman’s fierce return game, the depth and pace of their groundstrokes, and the basic fact that their peak tennis is nearly unplayable for the rest of the field. Their rivalry could have been the apotheosis of women’s power tennis.
What do you think, Jonathan, too dramatic?
JONATHAN: Serena and Petra are arguably the two premier power players of the last ten years, and their individual command performances tower over the rest of the WTA’s. There’s a sense that when each is at the absolute peak of her powers, nobody can stop her. So, it’s surprising that last night’s match was only their seventh meeting, and disappointing that when they have met, they’ve rarely been able to summon their best against each other at the same time.
Last night’s performance wasn’t a course correction for that, but it was at least the second time in their would-be rivalry that they played three sets. None of the three sets went beyond nine games, with each woman taking control of a set and not ceding ground; most of the tension within each set happened early, and once the winner of that set was able to withstand the other’s charge, it was smoother sailing.
JR: There were moments in last night’s match when they shone at the same time, especially the third game of the second set. With Petra serving, Serena reached three break points. Petra's response? Ace, ace, ace, and then another ace just for fun on a non-break point. But Serena kept digging in, finally realizing that Petra was serving out wide almost every time, on both the deuce and ad sides. Serena smacked a crosscourt forehand for a blazing winner to set up a fourth break point. On her fifth, she punished the exact same serve with the exact same crosscourt forehand to break Kvitova’s serve and announce her presence in this match.
From there, the second set was entertaining and the Cincinnati crowd became fully invested. Serena continued to crush returns throughout the set, securing a second break to go up 5-2.
JN: I find it amusing when folks imply that Serena was missing a trick by “allowing” Petra those aces out wide and not anticipating it as her go-to move. With that angle on a perfectly struck Petra serve out wide to the backhand, there really isn’t much room to get to it without leaving yourself absurdly exposed to the serve down the tee. It is a convenient part of that narrative, though, that it was a short-angled backhand return winner on a wide serve to Serena’s backhand that broke Petra for a second time, allowing Serena to close out the second set 6-2.
Where these two are most interesting against each other is when they find themselves embroiled in long rallies. Towards the back end of the match, it looked like Serena was thriving more in those situations. In press, she said: “I feel like I did better in the longer points, but I feel like she kept it short more than me.” In fact, Serena said that she was looking forward to the longer rallies, something that isn’t necessarily always the case.
JR: That has to be encouraging for Serena fans, that she was willing to commit to rallies and remain patient. She wasn’t trying to crush winners early in points. I think she’s getting to a place where she trusts her fitness and conditioning more. This will be a long journey, as Miss Olympia is not even a year old yet and Serena’s body has endured untold trauma.
Serena remarked after the match: “I’m still at the very beginning. You know, this is a long comeback. I just started.” This attitude lets Serena both release some of the pressure and signal that she’s here for the long run, that she’s not satisfied with her play but is committed to finding her best again.
Petra, for her part, has amassed five titles on four different surfaces in 2018, less than two years removed from the attack that left her racquet hand a mangle of exposed tendons and nerves. Consistency is still elusive -- note those first round losses at Australia and Wimbledon -- but Kvitova has learned not only to endure those valleys but to accept them.
JN: She also comes into these matches knowing that she won’t be awed by the situation or her opponent. Petra quipped in press, “I’m pretty lucky when I’m playing these kinds of players and always playing great. Not always, but most of the time. So it’s nice that I can show the best tennis against the best players.” It’s not often that Serena plays an opponent who has no doubt that they can win against her.
Obviously Petra is very pleased with a win like this. But, Serena should also be able to take some positives away from Cincinnati. Remember, just two weeks ago she was losing 6-1 6-0 to Konta in San Jose. She played very well in her opening match here against Gavrilova, and last night she went toe-to-toe with one of the game’s very best and was so close to getting it done. She is still not there yet: after winning the second set and breaking Kvitova to open the third, Serena gave the break right back and eventually found herself down 2-5. When she held at love to stay in the match for 3-5, her gestures revealed frustration at not having been able to deliver that type of serving game until then. Despite the loss, Serena came to Cincinnati and absolutely put the horror of San Jose to rest.
JR: Up next for Petra is a much easier match against Kiki Mladenovic, then a possible quarterfinal clash with the in-form Sloane Stephens. She’s entered into New Haven and then the US Open, due for a good result in a major. As we’ve seen, Petra’s peak, when it arrives, is fearsome.