Two different matches
The viewer side of a rain delay differs from reality. The players leave the court for two hours, and when they return, we resume all of the story lines we were internalizing earlier, as if we had simply hit pause on a video game. For the players, though, a new match begins after the delay. You review and tweak your strategy, you go through your warm-up routine from scratch, and you start over.
Tuesday's Sloane Stephens-Marion Bartoli match played out like two completely different matches. In the first one, Stephens' serve carried her, enough that some blown opportunities on Bartoli's serve (she let Bartoli off the hook at 4-3) didn't seem like too big a deal. It felt like she was closer to breaking Bartoli than the other way around, and the match was more or less in her favor because of it.
After the long rain delay, however, the match not only changed hands, it changed personalities. Bartoli immediately broke Stephens to take the first set, then broke five more times in the second. Her return aggression destroyed Stephens' chances overall. Sloane landed just 54 percent of her first serves, won just 29 percent of her first serve points when she did get the serve in (it was 77 percent in the first set), and won just one of 12 second-serve points. Bartoli punished second serves to Stephens' backhand over and over again, and Stephens never had an answer. That Stephens was able to break back and even the match at 5-5 while holding just once was incredibly impressive; but with the match on the line, she just couldn't make Bartoli pay for her aggression.
Down from basically the moment the second set began, Stephens began to play angry, and it looked good on her. When she is dialed in, she can pin ball after ball in the baseline corners, moving forward and playing almost perfect, aggressive tennis. But as we've seen throughout the fortnight, her game abandons her. Even when her rallies improved, her serve never came around.
Meanwhile, Bartoli is back in the Wimbledon semifinals for the first time since her shocking upset of Justine Henin got her to the 2007 finals against Venus Williams. She has had a tough year, cutting coaching ties with her father and basically going coach-less for a time. She has always been a crafty, unorthodox presence on the women's tour, and she has played confident, punishing tennis; she has yet to lose a set in five matches, and after disposing of a Wimbledon quarterfinal newbie in Stephens, she now gets a shot at semifinal newbie Kristen Flipkens on Thursday.
Slicing and dicing
God, it's exhausting being a Petra fan.— Hannah Wilks (@newballsplease) July 2, 2013
It's exhausting being a Kvitova OBSERVER. RT @newballsplease: God, it's exhausting being a Petra fan.— Bill Connelly (@SBN_BillC) July 2, 2013
It always feels like Petra Kvitova is this close to putting the pieces together again. (And when they start to come together, it feels like everything is this close to falling apart.) I wrote earlier today about the tease of greatness; well, Kvitova gave us a whole lot of that in the 2011 Wimbledon fortnight. She blazed through the opening rounds of that tournament nearly unchallenged, she took down Victoria Azarenka, 6-2, in the third set in the semifinals, and she laid waste to Maria Sharapova in the finals. She would go on to make the semifinals of both the Australian and French Opens in 2012, but she has been teetering over the last 12 months, with untimely losses and poor slam performances threatening to not only knock her out of the WTA Top 10, but perhaps even the Top 15 or 20.
Even at her poorest form, however, she will randomly uncork a remarkable down-the-line forehand that reminds you of 2011 all over again. She will destroy a first serve that makes you wonder how she's ever broken. And in the first set against Kirsten Flipkens, she showed just enough of her Peak Petra form for one to assume she was getting dialed in just in time for the semifinals.
And just as she began to look like a potential two-time Wimbledon champion, Flipkens (forgive me) flipped the script a bit. She was mostly error-free in the first set, as Kvitova's own offense told the tale (Winners-Unforced Errors, first set: Kvitova 20-13, Flipkens 6-1); in the final two sets, however, Flipkens found her own offense, chipping and charging more and hitting 17 winners to three errors (Kvitova in the last two sets: 21 winners to 15 errors). Kvitova may have played her best match of the tournament on Tuesday, but Flipkens relaxed and found a higher level.
To repeat: Kirsten Flipkens was ranked so low she couldn't play the QUALIFYING draw @wimbledon in 2012. Now she's 2 matches from title.— Jon Wertheim (@jon_wertheim) July 2, 2013
Flipkens' story is incredible. First of all, she is now two wins away from pulling off something that neither Kim Clijsters nor Justin Henin -- Belgian tennis legends -- were able to do.
Fifteen months ago, she was sidelined by blood clots, and while she was getting treatment, her ranking fell into the 200s, and the Belgian Tennis Federation took away her funding. Once recovered, she found a new coach and improved discipline, and she found herself taken under the wing of the recently retired Clijsters to an extent. And her ranking has risen in a way that rankings aren't supposed to rise, from 262nd in Spring 2012, to 54th by the end of 2012, to 20th today, to even higher next week. Dealing with blood clots requires discipline and patience, both in the treatment and recovery, and Flipkens not only recovered, she also figured out how to thrive at 27. She will be the underdog against the more accomplished Bartoli in the semifinals; but she's been the underdog for most of her career. She's figured out how to make it pay off of late.