Can one woman play herself into competitive shape in the course of one night?
That was the leading question during the opening session of the season-ending WTA Championships in Staples Center on Wednesday. The answer was a little bit complicated and took two hours to emerge.
What seemed to be an answer of “No” turned into something between “No” and “Yes.” Serena Williams rallied after dropping the first set and trailing, 0-3, in the second against French Open champion Anastasia Myskina of Russia in round-robin play in the Red Group.
An exhausted-looking Williams won, 4-6, 6-3, 6-4, in front of an announced 8,127, clinching it with an ace down the middle on her fourth match point. At one stage, Williams won eight consecutive games, starting from 0-3 in the second set. The good news was she said she wasn’t thinking about her surgically repaired left knee during the match.
“I really wanted to win. I’ve been working really hard,” Williams said. “This is taking baby steps and I just thought to myself, whatever happens I was going to keep fighting.”
Earlier, in an all-Russian match, U.S. Open champion Svetlana Kuznetsova defeated Vera Zvonareva, 6-2, 6-4, in 67 minutes in the Black Group. Lindsay Davenport defeated Elena Dementieva of Russia, 6-0, 6-1, in the Red Group in the last singles match of the night.
There were elements of surprise and drama. Surprise as in a strong turnout for Day 1. Of the three years the event has been in Staples Center, this was the largest crowd on opening day.
You could hear a conversation being held on the other side of the arena in previous years. On Wednesday, loud conversation and laughter from the restaurant annoyed the players in the first match and for part of the second one, a promotion called Singles Night.
As for the on-court drama, nearly all of it belonged to the Myskina-Williams match.
Williams was battling rust as much as Myskina.
Since winning in Beijing shortly after the U.S. Open in September, Williams played one match, losing to the lightly regarded Alina Jidkova in Linz, Austria, blaming the result, in part, on a headache.
Myskina led, 4-1, before Williams started finding her range, cutting the deficit to 4-3. Williams had four break points in the eighth game of the first set and squandered them, smacking her racket hard on the court after dropping the game.
Williams hit another lull at the start of the second, losing the first three games and winning only one point as she was broken twice in that span.
“I hadn’t shook her hand yet, so I thought I was still in the match,” Williams said of the 3-0 deficit.
Just as quickly, the momentum flipped and Myskina was the one looking desperate, dropping the next eight games.
There was little suspense in the opening singles match. Zvonareva looked flat and tired, not a surprise, considering she played six tournaments in six countries the last two months in trying to qualify for the Championships.
“Well, I know Vera wasn’t playing her best today,” Kuznetsova said. “I expected her to play much better.... I knew I couldn’t play my first match at the top of my level. But I was trying to do whatever I can do.”
Zvonareva was visibly upset as she quickly left the court, and she has often broken down in tears during matches. The emotional outburst once worked in her favor during a match against Kuznetsova when they were youngsters.
“I know her the way she is,” Kuznetsova said. “She has always been like this. And once I lost to her because she starts crying. I was 4-1 up in the third set. I was playing unbelievable. And suddenly Vera started crying. And she was talking to herself. So I stopped. So I lost in a tiebreaker.”
She hasn’t made that mistake again.