Lethargic Thursday night in losing the first set of her quarterfinal match against Elena Vesnina, Venus Williams suddenly began moving her feet and fighting back with fierce forehands in the second set at Indian Wells.
This was something different for Vesnina. Her rhythm was thrown off and her strategy crumbled as the crowd at Stadium 1 began to pull for sentimental favorite Williams.
Vesnina had seen this movie before, the one where Williams overcomes adversity to stage an improbable comeback. In fact, the 30-year-old Russian saw it as recently as in Williams' second-round match here at the BNP Paribas Open, when Williams saved three match points. Vesnina wasn't eager to become the second banana in a Williams comeback sequel.
"When she won the second set, I was like, I saw previous matches that she was down with a match point, with a set point, and I was like, 'Uh-oh, it's coming back again. I'm going to be another victim of Venus,'" Vesnina said. "I don't want. I want to win this. I want this match."
Vesnina had to save six break points in the final game but held on for a 6-2, 4-6, 6-3 victory. "I'm on fire," Vesnina announced, and no one could contradict her, at least in the metaphorical sense.
Vesnina, seeded 14th, advanced to a semifinal match Friday against Kristina Mladenovic of France, who staged a comeback of her own against Caroline Wozniacki earlier Thursday. Mladenovic's 3-6, 7-6 (4), 6-2 victory was her first decision over Wozniacki in four tries and it ensured that she will crack the top 20 in the next rankings.
"Every day I go out there on the court, in the gym practicing, it's for a moment like that," Mladenovic said.
Williams' exit removes the last well-known name from a field that lost her sister, world No. 1 Serena Williams, to a knee injury before play began. No. 2 Angelique Kerber was eliminated by Vesnina in the previous round, and No. 4 Simona Halep fell to Mladenovic a few days ago.
If there are no marquee names left, there's plenty of skill and stories to be told. The other semifinal matchup, which was determined Wednesday, will pit No. 3 Karolina Pliskova of the Czech Republic against Svetlana Kuznetsova of Russia.
Williams, who will be 37 in June, was betrayed by her body. She wore a heavy wrap on her left thigh in each of her matches here and clearly wasn't at peak strength, though she wouldn't specify what's wrong other than to say she had "issues." She also was diagnosed six years ago with Sjogren's syndrome, an autoimmune disease.
"I have a lot of long-term concerns, FYI," she said, smiling. "That's never stopped me. I will keep trucking.
"I would just like to be healthy just like the next human being. You beat your body up in sport, and I want to play these big events. I don't want to be at home watching. It's frustrating either way, not to be 100% or to watch at home. Which one do you choose? I chose to be here. That was my choice. I gave it my best today, and I'm looking forward to playing her again, hopefully healthy and 100%, and will have an opportunity to really show what I can do in these kind of matches."
Vesnina showed she's capable of rising to the occasion after trailing, 0-40, in that final game. "A couple of kind of big points she gave me unforced errors, and I stick to this game," Vesnina said. "You know, I was, like, I never gonna lose this game. I was really fighting like it's the last game of my life.
"Maybe this kind of tactic helped me to win this last game. Because [the] other way it's gonna be 5-4, she will serve and then 5-all, and you never know. She will come back again."
Not this time, though Vesnina respects Williams' attitude and her impact on the sport.
"She's coming and giving everything, you know. She's always fighting, always enjoying, smiling," Vesnina said. "You know, you can see she's, like, little girl on the court, actually, enjoying more than half of the WTA Tour. And we have to learn from her, how she's appreciating what she's doing."
Mladenovic and Wozniacki had reached the quarterfinals without losing a set, but that changed when they met under the scorching late-morning sun. Wozniacki lamented squandering some chances in the third set, but the bigger factor was Mladenovic's ability to change up her game to include slices and drop shots. "And something new I put today was the serve and volley on such important points. I impress myself, kind of," she said. "I was, 'OK, great. What I'm gonna do now?'"
She's going to play in the semifinals here, that's what. Deservedly so too.