Gutty Venus reigns over Kvitova

Petra Kvitova might be the reigning Wimbledon champion, but that was unlikely to impress Venus Williams, who has won the fabled title on five occasions.

Striking the ball harder — if that was possible — and more accurately than her 22-year-old opponent, Venus had the Stadium Court crowd on its feet Friday night as she roared into the third round of the Sony Ericsson Open with a thumping 6-4, 4-6, 6-0 victory over the Czech southpaw.

This would have been an impressive performance from any champion returning from an injury- and illness-plagued year — but, considering Venus is suffering from the debilitating Sjogren’s Syndrome, it was quite astonishing.

From the first point, the elder Williams sister looked up for the battle and clicked immediately into a smooth, hard-hitting groove. Finding the mark with that massive serve, Venus edged a highly competitive first set by playing the big points-getter, and it was only Kvitova’s power and determination that enabled her gain some sort of foothold in the second.

But it couldn’t last. Venus was pounding the Czech’s defenses with salvo after salvo of forehand and backhand drives, and whenever Kvitova tried to move her around during rallies, Williams’ anticipation and those long legs enabled her to cover everything that was fired at her.

“The third set was a little cruel for me,” Kvitova said with a rueful smile.

“In the first two games I had game point and break point. I knew what I had to do, but the key was my returns in the third set. I had been more aggressive on her second serve early on, but later I couldn’t do it. I tried — but nothing.”

They had played once before, in Memphis back in 2008, when Kvitova was just a promising big-hitter who caught Venus on an off day and scored a surprise victory in three sets.

“We are different players now,” Kvitova said.

Yes, different to such an extent that the younger player was supposed to be the dominant force and Venus the ailing veteran wondering if she would ever be able to play again.

But, not for the first time, a Williams sister tore up the prepared script and made the oddsmakers look stupid.

“I’ve got nothing to lose,” said Venus. “I live with [an] auto-immune system [ailment] every day, so every shot, every victory is a blessing.

"I was just trying to be me on court. The third set is where I try to bring out my best tennis, and I didn’t even realize that it was 6-0. Of course it is gratifying to have a victory like that. A lot of it’s mental. You have to get out there and believe you can play. And I know I can play — that’s one thing I do know.”

And so does Kvitova.

Earlier, world No. 1 Victoria Azarenka seemed to be heading for a straightforward victory over Holland’s Michaella Krajicek, but, in the end, it was not so easy as Krajicek changed tactics and pulled off some surprising winners before going down 6-3, 7-5.

“She started to really go for her shots," said Azarenka. “She was really aggressive. I kind of stepped back, waiting for her mistake instead of really creating my opportunity. I have to give her credit. She played some great games.”

But too few, unfortunately, for the sister of former Wimbledon champion Richard Krajicek, and Azarenka never was in danger of losing her unbeaten record for 2012.

Next up, Azarenka will find herself facing one of the game’s brightest starlets with an interesting background. Heather Watson was born on the Channel Island of Guernsey, but her mother hails from Papua New Guinea.

She trains at the Nick Bollettieri Academy and, at age 19, already is a member of the British Fed Cup team.

In the opening round here, Watson achieved the rare feat of fighting back from 0-5 down in the final set of her match against Romania’s Sorana Cirstea to win by 7-4 in the deciding tie break.

Then, Friday, she dismissed the vastly more experienced 27th seed from the Czech Republic, Lucie Safarova 6-2, 6-1.

“I was moving well again after hurting my ankle playing soccer before Christmas,” Watson explained. “Movement is a huge part of my game.”

Her game, based on hard-hitting baseline rallies aimed at drawing opponents out of position, was all too much for Safarova, and Azarenka is looking forward to playing her.

“I think she’s a great player,” said Azarenka. “And I really like her as a person. She’s always smiling — she’s a little sunshine every time I see her.”