Racking up those Grand Slam titles never stops mattering to Serena Williams. After beating the defending champion Petra Kvitova 6-3, 7-5 in their much anticipated quarter-final, Serena said fervently: “I hate losing. If you’re not first, you’re last. If I lose [in a Grand Slam final], I don’t keep the trophy.” So somewhere on the planet – in landfill, maybe? – there are four unwanted Slam runner-up trophies rusting into oblivion. Only her 13 champion’s prizes have value for Williams.
After today, she is the runaway favourite to add a 14th on Saturday. This was a contest many would have been glad to see as the final, but as it was they were playing for place in the last four. Despite the closed Centre Court roof, great things were expected, but while Kvitova played some of her best tennis this year, she has been carrying a back injury and could not match the 30-year-old American. This was their third career meeting, and it was the third in which Kvitova could not win so much as a set. Williams rolled back the years to show why she is always a threat, especially on grass, taking the match in one hour and 24 minutes.
Yet at the outset it seemed the closure of the roof must favour Kvitova, who has lost just one indoor match in the last two years. She loves the conditions, with the ball moving slower through the air. She might also have taken pre-match heart from the knowledge that Serena returned so poorly when she edged Zheng Jie in the third round. But it soon became clear that the No.6 seed planned to counter Kvitova’s left-handed serve by standing inside the baseline, and with Serena moving better than previously this Wimbledon, it worked.
With her own serve in formidable mode, at 3-2 Serena saw her chance. A great return was followed by a double fault, and then Kvitova put the ball in the net for 0-40. On the second break point she hooked the ball wide from the baseline and 4-2 looked a very big advantage with Serena going for her shots. She held to love with a wonderful drop shot, and at 2-5 another Kvitova mistake gave Serena a set point. It was saved, but there was no stopping the inevitable when Serena served and the set was gone.
At the start of the second Kvitova began to serve better, but by necessity she was going for her shots and not always making them. At 4-4 she held from 0-30 and it felt like a pivotal moment; then next game she forced her way to a set point – her first break point of the match – by coming to the net to put away a backhand. But Serena was calm. She not only served away the problem to level, but at 5-5 turned the tables. With break point, Serena fluked a mishit return which went high in the air. It seemed Kvitova had too much to contemplate what to do with it, and she dumped it in the net. There was no way back. Serena sent down an ace for her first match point, and followed it with an unreturned serve to take the win.
“I have absolutely nothing to lose,” grinned Serena afterwards. “It’s fun. I’m enjoying every moment, having the time of my life. This feels like a good win. She [Kvitova] was playing very well. It wasn’t about dethroning her, just playing the match as well as I could. I’ve been returning much better in practice than in any of my matches. Today was definitely better.”
And far from feeling that her game was blunted by the closure of the roof, which she had never experienced before, she delighted in it. “I loved it,” she enthused. “There were no elements, no excuses. I loved the sound, like a whoosh, a pop, like a video game that you’re playing. Really cool. It was a first for me and I really enjoyed it.
“I don’t think about myself as the title favourite. I have two more matches to play and win and that’s my goal. I had a good talk with my dad and my sister before this match and they got me really motivated to raise my game. You have to do that against a defending champion. When I defended my first major I didn’t win. She [Kvitova] played her heart out. I don’t think I’ve seen her play so well.”
For her part, the defeated champion was philosophical. “She served much better than me,” acknowledged Kvitova. “The set point I had and lost was a turning point. That’s tennis. I do think she will win the title again now. It’s very difficult for anyone to beat her when she’s playing like this. I still have the trophy I won last year at home, so I’m happy.”
One last factoid to contemplate... Serena and Venus are playing in the doubles (although they are still waiting to complete the rain-delayed second round match they began on Saturday). Eight times previously they have contested the doubles here, and whether or not they have won that title, on all eight occasions one of them has lifted the Venus Rosewater Dish.