Kaia Kanepi showed up 18 minutes late for her match against Serena Williams on Sunday. She misplaced her forehand and couldn’t find it in her racket bag, or locker or the stringing room.
Unfortunately, the first set went on without either and Williams won 6-0. Coincidentally that set lasted 18 minutes and discouragingly Kanepi won a total of six points.
Then Kanepi found her forehand. It was in her head. Thence a real match developed and Kanepi won the second set.
In what was rather a Twilight Zone affair, a real tale of two matches, Williams was put to the test for the first time in this U.S. Open, an Open she had to miss last year while giving birth to her daughter Alexis Olympia.
Williams fell back on her faithful serve, whacking 18 aces and pulling out the round of 16 match, 6-0, 4-6, 6-3, on Arthur Ashe Stadium to advance to an Open quarterfinal for the 15th time where she will face Karolina Pliskova.
“I think one thing she did well was change her strategy and started doing just completely different game and gave me a different look to her game,” Williams said. “I made one or two crucial errors and that cost me the second set, or at least cost me the first game. Then she was holding pretty well at that point.”
Williams didn't feel her game deteriorated so much as she lost key points. “It wasn't like my level went down tremendously,” she said. “It was one or two points that made a huge difference in that second set.”
Kanepi had played Williams four times in her career going back to 2008 and had never won a set. She last lost to Williams at the Open in 2014 in the very same round of 16. Williams went on to win the title that year, the last of her six Open trophies.
On Sunday it looked like Kanepi might never win a game. A wry smile came across her face after losing another point in the first set.
“It was difficult to find anything in the beginning,” Kanepi said. “I thought she played really well and when I had a chance, a small chance, I thought it was a really important shot but it was hard to hit the shot you know you have to hit well.”
Then Kanepi’s forehand showed up in the second set at the same time Williams misplaced a few groundstrokes. Kanepi broke Williams in the first game, and a tennis match broke out.
“I started playing better, I found more comfortable,” Kanepi said. “[I was thinking] in the second set it can change.
But dealing with Williams’ serve was just a whole different ballgame.
“Today it was just unreturnable,” Kanepi said, resignedly.
With Williams serving in the seventh game of the second set a couple of solid points elicited a couple of her trademark “C’mons” when she ran the score to 40-15. Kanepi then took the score to deuce with a classic cross-court forehand winner that earned racket applause from Williams. Two points later Kanepi had her second break. She held serve in the 10th game to take the set after being down two break points.
Now the match turned on the third set outcome, and Williams turned up the thermostat. She served eight of her aces in the set and won 16 of 17 first serve points. Her groundstrokes had more fire. When she won the first game on her serve she let out a roar, something like “Yooooorah.”
“It was a Serena scream,” she said with a smile. “I don't try to do it. It just comes out.”
What the second-set turnaround a question of feeling the pressure? What pressure?
“Well, I mean, fortunately I didn't feel pressure, and I don't really feel pressure, because I'm on this journey of getting back to where I was,” said Williams, who returned from her maternity leave in March and managed to make the Wimbledon final in July.
“Yeah, I'm kind of enjoying that, to be honest,” she said.