Over the past few days, players at the BNP Paribas Open have remarked about the slower than normal courts. This is most likely due to the excessive and unusual rain seen in the Coachella Valley over the past few months. While players can assess and make their adjustments accordingly as they hit the practice courts, the ever-changing wind is another story. High winds and dust storms were on and off all Thursday. As I watched the Taylor Townsend vs. Ysaline Bonaventure match on Court 4, the stadium flags were flailing like a kite tail. Around the grounds, I saw turned-over planters and a few empty trash cans rolling on the ground. This is a very unusual sight for this pristine venue.
Venus Williams d. Andrea Petkovic 6-4 0-6 6-3
Williams and Petkovic kicked off the WTA day session in Stadium 1. The first set was even-handed, with short service holds until Petkovic took the first break to go up 3-1. Then an exchange of breaks began, as both players pressed. Games five to seven were the longest of this set. Once Williams captured her second break, the momentum shifted and she never let up.
The American established a quick hold to 4-4, then broke the German again, now up 5-4. That is when troubles appeared. Williams requested a medical timeout. On any typical day, Williams has to manage her Sjogren’s Syndrome which can leave her feeling depleted. However, over the past few years, the tennis legend seems to have mastered keeping her health in check. Despite the medical treatment, she held, serving out the set in style, with an ace.
On paper, Williams should have had the momentum, but as the second set progressed, it was clear something was physically off. Williams’ movement appeared compromised, she lost power in her serve and lingered between points. You could feel crowd concern. Statistically, her points won on both first and second serve dropped significantly, her return game went away and she did not win the important points, 0/3 of break point saved. She won only 11 points en route to being bageled by Petkovic.
What happened next speaks to the guts and determination of this tour veteran. Williams dug, immediately breaking her opponent, who helped by starting with two double-faults. That lift carried Williams, who seemed to have found a new source of energy and inspiration. She broke the German again in the fifth game and held, now up 5-1. The seven-time Grand Slam champion closed with a final break of serve, 6-3.
One wonders if Williams may have at some point let the second set go with confidence that she could manage the third set if she could catch her breath.
Despite complications from the wind, Williams’ third set stats climbed again, as she won 76% of first serve points, saved 75% of break points faced and found form in her return game. She turned everything around, showing why and how she has achieved so much.
In press, Williams remarked on concerns about her physical condition, stating: “I haven’t played in forever and so that was challenging in itself to get back into competition.” Venus will need all of her physicality, as she takes on Australian Open finalist and third seed Petra Kvitova in the second round. I am not sure I have seen this many classic early round matches in quite a while. In that theme, Serena Williams and Victoria Azarenka open the Friday night session.
[Q] Christina McHale d. Maria Sakkari 7-5 6-0
This match is probably the “surprise” win of the day. Christina McHale began her desert journey as a qualifier. The 26-year-old earned a spot in the main draw by defeating Fanny Stollar in three sets and then advancing with a retirement by Vera Zvonareva. Playing Zvonareva, McHale had won the first set 6-0 and was up 2-0 in the second when the Russian called it quits.
McHale is a player that flourished early on in her career, but then her performance faded. The American contracted mononucleosis back in 2012. This is an illness that can have lingering impacts on energy and stamina. In hind sight, McHale believes she probably should have rested instead of playing with the illness.
Although she is currently ranked 140, she owns a career high ranking of 24. I overheard McHale speaking with friends after her win over Stollar and the consensus among the group was that she was playing her best tennis. Perhaps this win over Sakkari signals the start of a new climb. In the second round, McHale will square off against Russian Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova.
[Q] Ysaline Bonaventure d. Taylor Townsend 6-7(3) 7-5 6-2
This match seemed to be on Townsend’s racquet in the second set, until Bonaventure found a way to break to 5-5. With Bonaventure on serve at 15-15, Townsend took a nasty fall. The chair came down and she was initially not getting up. Once she was upright and play resumed, a limp was visible and gone was her court coverage.
Throughout the match, the wind was brutal, but of the two players, Townsend seemed to have more skill in making adjustments and being patient. Credit is due to Bonaventure for staying in this match. There were several moments in the second set where she looked completely demoralized in an unrecoverable way. This was my first time seeing the Belgian live and she packs a punch with a heavy forehand. As a BNP Paribas Open qualifier, she has already won two prior three-setters. Next up for Bonaventure is another qualifier, Japan’s Misaki Doi.