Serena Williams came prepared to play on a sultry night in Cincinnati on Tuesday. She was fresh off a bounce-back first-round win that wiped away the bitter aftertaste of that shocking upset she endured in her previous tournament. Serena wore a bright, warrior red tennis dress, matching ribbons binding her hair. An ominous stillness surrounded her. She was all business.
But the Williams enterprise has been struggling lately. She recently powered her way to the Wimbledon final, a run suggesting that the 23-time Grand Slam titlist is back in clover. But since then, she has lost two of the only three matches she has played.
After those disappointments, Williams cited unnamed "distractions" as well as lingering postpartum depression as contributing factors in her poor play. On Tuesday evening, her impediment was the level of play from No. 8 seed Petra Kvitova. Williams' fitful comeback came to a grinding halt again, this time after two hours of splendid shock-and-awe tennis that resulted in a 6-3, 2-6, 6-3 loss.
There's no shame in losing to Kvitova, not even for someone named Williams. The 28-year-old southpaw, a two-time Wimbledon singles champion, is the 2018 tour leader with five titles. The worrying thing for the Williams camp will be that unless Williams takes a wild card into next week's hard-court event in New Haven, she will be forced to reboot her comeback under the stress and glare of the US Open spotlights.
Williams isn't panicking. "I'm still at the very beginning; this is a long comeback," she told reporters in Cincinnati after she lost. "I just began, I just started. I'm definitely at the very, very beginning."
The comment may sound a bit defensive, because Williams has been at it since March. Her words demonstrate there's nothing self-defeating about her sentiments. The familiar pluck and determination that fueled so many other revivals for her are undiminished. But the inconsistency in her play has to be worrying, given how she has failed to build on her success at Wimbledon.
"[I need a] more consistent serve more than anything," Williams said, adding that she needs to do the same on her return. "Basically my whole game needs to improve."
There's an alternate theory to consider: Kvitova is playing smoking-hot tennis -- so much so that on current form she would have posed a serious threat to Williams at any stage of her glorious career. This will go down as a second-round loss for the No. 27-ranked Williams, although it had the electric atmosphere and dazzling shot-making of an epic Grand Slam final.
Kvitova, a lean, 6-foot tall Czech, is also trying to re-establish herself at or near the top. Her comeback follows a home invasion and knife attack before the start of the 2017 season that required surgery on her left hand. Her return to the top hasn't been a sensational overnight revival, either. But this season, in her 14th month back on the tour, Kvitova looks more fit than ever, and her game is crisp and sparkling.
"It was a pleasure to share the court with Serena, she's such a champion," Kvitova told WTA handlers after the win. "We are both coming back -- from injury, from motherhood -- so it's something really special to play her."
After losing the first set, Williams mounted a furious fightback. In the marathon third game of the second set, Williams finally converted her fifth break point, then defended her next service game despite the heavy pressure applied by Kvitova. It seemed the tide had turned, perhaps for good, when Williams comfortably served out the set.
But Kvitova wouldn't quit. She kept Williams under pressure and pounded away at the Williams backhand until she punched through with a break for 4-2. Kvitova served it out without further drama.
"I tend to be a perfectionist," William mused later. "I like to do things that are of a standard that are maybe unrealistic -- and that includes [when I'm] being a mom."
Right now, a triumphant US Open for Williams may seem one of those unrealistic expectations. But she's been there before, and we've seen how that's turned out for her challengers.