As the tournament progresses, it challenges us to keep up with the evolving storylines — the sudden defeat of major players and the quiet emergence of those who have escaped notice, the silent assassins.
My day started on Court 3, a make-up match between the ninth seed Na LI (CHN), the first Grand Slam winner from China, and qualifier Johanna Larsson of Sweden, who, on the morning of this match, was celebrating her 24th birthday and in her debut here in Cincinnati.
Li has been in the spotlight, with two Slam finals last year, but at 30 years old, one has to wonder if she has peaked too late. She is six years older than her opponent, but today, it is best to focus on experience rather than age because she displays a potent blend of wisdom and execution as she forces her younger foe to work harder and harder for the points she wins on her serve, while Li cruises through her own service games. She breaks Larsson twice with surgically precise shot placement, moving Larsson around at will. When Li captures the first set 6-2, it is plain that she is firmly in command and using the match as practice because thanks to the suspension of play from the previous night, the winner here will end up playing again tonight.
Another holdover from the rain delay is the battle between Caroline Wozniacki (DEN) and Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova (RUS), which was called with Pavlyuchenkova already up a set (6-4) on the number six seed and former number one player in the world.
By the time I settled into the stands, Wozniacki was down 4-3 in the second and Pavlyuchenkova held to take a 5-3 lead. The Russian woman looked like a pounding brawler, but a couple of points dispelled that misconception. Pavlyuchenkova tempered her obvious strength with well-placed balls that unerringly found line and corners of the court just beyond Wozniacki’s reach. A hold from the higher seed set up an opportunity for Pavlyuchenkova to serve out the match, much to the chagrin of the vocal fans on the Grandstand who possibly hoped to be able to catch a glimpse of Rory McIlroy later in the evening. Alas, it was not to be. Pavlyuchenkova slammed that book shut, earning a spot opposite Petra Kvitova to compete for a coveted semifinal match, where maybe the fans might join her cause.
Next up on the Grandstand, Venus Williams and the three-seed Samantha Stosur (AUS), the reigning US Open champion. Venus has had to exert a great deal of effort along the way and would probably appreciate an easier match here, but with the formidability of Stosur and her compact, punchy power that’s highly unlikely.
It is apparent though that Venus wants to be the aggressor, as she stands on top of the baseline for Stosur’s first serve and a foot inside on the second. This allows her to get the jump and force Stosur off-balance. An early break and a tough hold for Venus, followed by a quick hold and a break for Stosur, and any hope for a quick two-setter are completely out the window. Even though Venus breaks right back on her opponent’s next two service games and ends up taking the first set 6-2, something in the way Stosur carries herself says, this isn’t close to being over.
On Center Court, Novak Djokovic and Marin Cilic (CRO) have already completed a set, which Djokovic took 6-3. Djokovic has had a fairly easy path thus far, especially his previous match, which ended when Davydenko retired after losing the first set 6-0, before last night’s rain. Today, he is a cat toying with his well-contained prey. Cilic is definitely in a tight corner with his back to the wall because before fans can blink, Djokovic is serving for the match with a 5-2 lead and just like that, it’s over. The cat has gobbled his prey up.
Stosur forced Venus to go back and forth with her on their way to a second set tiebreak, which she seized 7-2, but then Venus immediately broke her in the first game of the third set. As Venus reaches 3-1, most thoughts start to drift to a possible fantasy match-up of the Williams sisters in the final. Serena is set to start on Center Court and has dominated her court appearances thus far.
Television coverage of the end of the Venus-Stosur match means that Serena and Angelique Kerber (GER) are forced to wait.
A gritty battle for the final set goes to Venus (6-4) and we are tantalizingly closer to the dream.
Joe Morgan handles the coin toss to determine who serves to start the Serena-Kerber match. Serena serves and promptly gets broken, although she does seem too bothered. Her shots were either just a bit long or subject to the fickle fate of bounces off the net cord, which she will certainly adjust to as the match progresses.
Kerber, a much shorter player with reasonable power, works on moving Serena around and capitalizing on her error-prone play. There are flashes of Serena’s gifts – games where her serve, one of the best in the women’s game, cannot be touched – but those moments are fleeting. Instead, we see a Serena who has trouble timing her shots, sending swinging volleys into the net that should have been clear and rousing winners. She ends points staring off at either where the winner should have fallen or confused by the absurdity of this predicament she found herself in.
She seemed to be wondering where the real Serena Williams was, and she wasn’t alone. The only person not asking that question was Kerber, who took the match from whoever happened to be standing there in Serena’s lime-accented attire.
Final score: 6-4, 6-4.