INDIAN WELLS, Calif. — For Venus Williams, it’s all downhill from here.
That’s admittedly an odd thought with so much tennis yet to be played at the BNP Paribas Open, but it’s hard to imagine a tougher ask of Williams than what she accomplished in back-to-back third- and fourth-round matches at Indian Wells. After beating her sister, Serena, in straight sets Monday night, Venus was back on center court less than 20 hours later to face 27-year-old Anastajia Sevastova, a crafty, all-court player with a much different game than Serena’s.
“It was a really quick turnaround and that level of match, that level of opponent is worthy of a final,” Williams said of Monday night’s all-Williams match. “But it wasn’t even close to a final.” Instead, Williams woke up Tuesday morning after an emotional win to find herself in only the fourth round.
“You just have to reset your mind and focus on the round you’re in,” Williams said. “[Today was] completely different, a completely different resolution to solving the problems and the rallies on the court.”
Understandably, Williams was slow to start on Tuesday, her lethal first serve from the night before all but absent from her game. But after going down 4-2 in the first set, Williams won four of the next six games and took the set in a tiebreaker. That first set took 1 hour, 10 minutes to complete, nearly as long as it took Williams to win Monday night’s match.
“There was no conserving energy,” Williams said of her game plan against Sevastova. “I had to let it all go and try to win the point, because she wasn’t conserving anything, I don’t think, either.”
Sevastova took the first three games in the second set, but again Williams fought back, winning the next three games and taking the second set 6-4 to close out the match.
“It was honestly a very good match, well-competed on both sides,” Williams said. “There were some points where she just played and it was too good. I thought I was in control of the point and winning the point, and she turned it around.”
Williams now has a much-needed day off before facing 27th-ranked Carla Suarez Navarro in the quarters Thursday. With a day to rest mentally and physically, Williams is the clear favorite in the match, especially on the hard courts of Indian Wells. She has won four of the past five matches she’s played against Suarez Navarro, including in the round of 16 at last year’s US Open.
“I think the big difference is, I’ve played her more than [Sevastova],” Williams said. “I really didn’t know her game. So today was also learning — what works, what doesn’t work, what’s the rhythm like? I don’t think there will be as many surprises when I play [Suarez Navarro].”
If Williams makes it through her quarterfinal match, she will again play back-to-back matches Thursday and Friday. But the seven-time Grand Slam champ has already shown she’s up for the challenge. And no matter who she faces in the semis, she no longer has to deal with the emotion of playing her sister and no longer has to answer questions about Serena. The focus for Venus now can be on her own journey.
“The game is always progressing,” Williams said. “It’s either keep up or get out, and I have decided to keep up and hopefully still be one of the people that’s changing the game.”
After her win Tuesday, Williams seemed lighter, more genial than she has since arriving at Indian Wells, a possible indication she feels like she has stepped out from beneath the weight of the past two days. In her postmatch media conference, she said she started listening to Smokey Robinson & The Miracles a couple days ago, discussed the meaning behind the name of her clothing line — “Life is about not having any confinements. We all have mental confinements and physical confinements. EleVen is about being able to break free of that.” — and spoke about Althea Gibson, who will be honored with a statue at the US Open.
In 24 hours, Venus overcame perhaps the toughest two days she’s going to have at this tournament. If she continues to play at the level she has so far, her first title at Indian Wells seems well within her grasp.