In a second round clash that felt more like a major final, the two power-hitters traded blows from either side of the court, punches that would have knocked out many a player on tour. But not Williams, and not Kvitova.
For every ace fired, a thundering return winner was unleashed. A fist pump from one end was met with a roar from the other. The margins were slim, the pace was lightning-fast and the grit was off the charts.
Kvitova edged out Williams 6-3, 2-6, 6-3 but if the match was decided purely on heart, it would have definitely been a draw.
Less than a year ago, Williams was lying in a hospital bed after delivering her first child, Olympia, suffering from life-threatening complications that included blood clots in her lungs. She now wears barely visible compression tights while playing in an effort to avoid further health problems.
At the time, Kvitova was three months into her comeback from a vicious knife attack that saw her get stabbed in her left playing hand while fending off a home intruder. The damage sustained means her hand might never feel the same again.
Both women found their way back to the court, and gave us a glimpse of what they’re made of in their three-set thriller on Tuesday night. What they’ve been through and what they represent transcends tennis, but the sport is as good a platform as any to convey their message of strength and perseverance.
Williams reached the Wimbledon final last month in what was just her fourth tournament back from maternity leave. Kvitova has captured five titles this season and is ranked No. 6 in the world. Those are not your average comeback stories.
Williams, who returned to competition just five months ago, insists her journey is just commencing.
“I’m still at the very beginning. You know, this is a long comeback. I just began. I just started. Definitely at the very, very beginning. I’m getting there, and I’m going to just continue to work hard, and hopefully I’ll start winning more matches,” said the 36-year-old American.
Williams is 12-5 this season, has lost three of her last four matches, and is 0-3 against top-10 opposition since her return to action in March.
But she’s also gone from being unranked, to rising to No. 27 in the world within four months of her comeback and produced some brilliant tennis against Kvitova in Cincinnati. Her baby hasn’t even turned one yet.
“I think we’re both doing good. She’s obviously doing a little bit better, but she’s been back a little bit longer. We’re both still here and still competing,” said Williams of herself and Kvitova.
With her next stop being the US Open, Williams is eyeing further progress and possibly tying Margaret Court’s all-time record of major titles won.
“I think I just definitely want to get a more consistent serve, more than anything, and return more consistently. Basically my whole game needs to improve,” said the 23-time Grand Slam champion.
Those recent losses may feel alien to someone like Williams, but the reality is that she was just one win away from claiming a 24th Slam at Wimbledon last month and history has shown that every time she has faced adversity, she bounced back higher than anyone could imagine. Discard her from the US Open conversation at your own peril!
Halep’s coach Darren Cahill has a good reason to find that particularly amusing.
“Rafa has inspired her [Simona] with what he’s been able to do, with the way he trains, with his work ethic, the way he fights for every single match no matter what the score is. He can be down 6-0, 5-0, 40/0. You wouldn’t even be able to tell with him,” Cahill told reporters in Cincinnati on Tuesday.
“That, to me, is what she’s modelled the last year and a half on. I think you see a little bit – no one’s going to be like Rafa. But you see a little bit of the old Simona compared to the new Simona, and she’s more like that, because she’s always had a great work ethic. I have never had to push her on the practice court. She always gives 100 per cent.
“She’s like a little Rafa on the practice court. We need to make her a little Rafa on the match court, as well.
“It’s nice that her two victories, the one she had in Paris and the one she had last week, both coincided with Nadal doing exactly the same. It’s been pretty cool, actually.”
For someone who wears her heart on her sleeve, witnessing Halep’s mental transformation over the past two years has been remarkable.
She went from losing a heartbreaking French Open final to Jelena Ostapenko after blowing a significant lead 14 months ago, to claiming the title in Paris for her maiden Grand Slam triumph a year later. She credits Cahill for helping her change her on-court attitude and her sports psychologist for improving her mental strength.
Now ranked No. 1 in the world and fresh off of a trophy run in Montreal, Halep insists she is hungry for more ahead of the kick-off of her Cincinnati campaign on Wednesday against Ajla Tomljanovic.
“No time for celebration but at the end of the year I will for sure for everything that I’ve done this year. It’s not easy, it’s tough. And I expect a really tough one in my first match here. I’m not fresh, but I’m confident. So I think the balance is okay,” said the Romanian on Monday.
“I want to play and I really want to go a few more matches because it’s nice when you have the feeling when you’re winning a title.”
Halep hit a rough patch with Cahill during the spring of 2017 and he briefly ended their coaching relationship because of her negative attitude on the court.
They reunited shortly after and she’s gone from strength to strength ever since, becoming world No. 1 and winning a first major title.
She believes she wouldn’t have achieved any of that had it not been for that tough love she received from Cahill when he decided to split.
“I think I have to give him the credit for that, changing my attitude and being more positive on court and also off court. Of course that was maybe the toughest moment of my career, losing my coach because of my attitude and not because I’m not working,” confessed Halep.
“It’s a bit frustrating for a player and as a person as well. I really worked hard in that way and I improved. So I feel like Darren did a very good thing back then.”
Cahill, who formerly worked with Andre Agassi and Lleyton Hewitt, joked when he was told what Halep said regarding the impact of that break last year.
“She said that? Oh, can I get a tape of that,” laughed the Aussie coach.
He believes the biggest improvement with Halep has been her self-understanding and says him stepping away last season was not strategic but a genuine attempt at helping her find her way.
“‘Tactic’ is probably not the right word. I think ‘last resort’, a little bit, because we’d worked through a series of structures to try to help her get better on the court, and she was still getting in the way of herself,” he explained.
“So I didn’t know if that was me being the roadblock or whether it was more her.
“It was either basically problem with me and she needed to hear a new voice, and the last thing any coach wants to do is hold a player back. I was having these internal discussions with myself as to, okay, maybe she does need a new voice, or maybe she needs a sparkplug moment where it might be a bit of a wakeup call for her to really look inside herself, try to get better, and get the most out of herself.
“She had to go away for three, four, five weeks, decide what she needed to do. I know she’s never going to be perfect on the court, and I don’t want her to be, because she’s got this Romanian blood, which is fire in the belly, which is fun, exciting, emotional. You want that in your players, because it’s part of the reason why she’s so good.
“But there has to be a balance, a line, and we weren’t finding that balance. She’s worked really hard over the last year and a half to find that balance. She’s not perfect, but she’s getting better all the time. But more than anything, she understands herself a lot better now. She never used to do that. She would walk off the court and go, ‘What’s the problem?’ Then you’d sort of sit down and walk through the match.
“Now she’s understanding what the problems are, when she gets a little bit emotional, how many points in a row she’s losing because of that. She’s starting to see the structure and the momentum changes and the swings much better than she used to. That’s why now she’s able to turn matches around, whereas once upon a time, they used to slip away pretty quickly.”
In the 2017 French Open final, Halep was up 6-4, 3-0 against an unseeded Ostapenko then saw the match slip away. A year later, she rallied from a set down to overcome Stephens and took the title.
“I feel different, I feel stronger mentally and I enjoy more. Even after the French Open, it was a big success and my dream came true, I still feel good on court and I can say that I’m relaxed and I enjoy more,” insists Halep.
After losing in the third round at Wimbledon, squandering a match point along the way, against Hsieh Su-Wei last month, Halep described her own performance as unprofessional. She took three weeks off then came back to the circuit and immediately won the Rogers Cup in Montreal. Her faith in her own abilities now helps her rebound from any setback in impressive fashion.
She also paid tribute to her sports psychologist for the work they’ve put in.
“She’s turning me to the positive way. She makes me feel like I’m able to change some personal things and I was able to do that. And I think also the team, the people around me, they always pushed me to pass my limit, which is great and maybe that’s why I was able to change.
“I’m not perfect. I still have [things to work on],” she adds with a smile.
That may be true. But Halep and Cahill both know she’s come a long way and the world No. 1 sounds adamant about extending her stay at the top.
Wawrinka, who won his third slam title at Flushing Meadows two years ago, has found life difficult since coming back from knee surgery in January and missed out on automatic entry with his ranking down at 151.
Azarenka returned to the tour last summer after having her first child but a custody battle with the father of her toddler son Leo left her unable to take him outside America and she did not play a tournament between Wimbledon last year and Indian Wells in March.
The Belarusian, twice an Australian Open champion, has been unable to reach her previous heights and was also ranked outside the cut-off for the year’s final grand slam, although she has since climbed back inside the top 100.
Russian veteran Svetlana Kuznetsova, the champion in New York 14 years ago, has also been given a wild card.