6/30/2011 6:00:00 PM
By Matt Cronin
WIMBLEDON - Maria Sharapova has never lost to a player younger than she is in a Grand Slam final. The feeling around the grounds of Wimbledon after young Czech Petra Kvitova overpowered Victoria Azarenka 6-1, 3-6, 6-2 in the semifinals is that the end of that streak could be over.
Sharapova took care of business in dispatching Sabine Lisicki 6-4, 6-3, but it was not a very pretty victory for one of the WTA's most statuesque and glamorous women. She threw in 13 double faults. She largely won the contest because she returned extremely well and was able to control the action off the ground - but if she cannot get control of her serve in the final, the lefthanded Czech will have her way with her.
The great unknown with Kvitova is not her talent level, but how she will stand up mentally in a Grand Slam final. Dinara Safina, who is of equal talent, completely froze up in her three Slam final appearances and was unable to show even close to her best stuff. Ana Ivanovic played a fair match against Sharapova in her second major final at the 2008 Australian Open, but played a far better contest in her second appearance five months later when she won her sole major at Roland Garros. Former No.1 Jelena Jankovc played respectably in the 2008 US Open final against Serena Williams, but failed to take her chances. And Sharapova? Well, in her first big dance seven years ago in the Wimbledon final against Serena, she felt no pressure and blew the cover off the ball and Serena.
Sometimes, experience matters, other times, players are blessed with the ignorance of inexperience. Kvitova’s hoping for the former rather than the latter.
“It's something where you don't really know what to expect and you almost have that feeling of nothing to lose and you go for it,” Sharapova said. “I think that's kind of what I did when I was here at the stage of being 17 years old. I didn't really know what was gonna happen. I knew that I was facing a really good opponent that's done so well on grass, former champion. But that didn't really bother me.”
Kvitova’s game is a fantastic fit for the lawns as her hard serve swerves and bites, she can hook deep forehands, flatten out backhands and take care of reasonable volleys. That she registered 40 winners to just 9 from Azarenka is astounding considering that the Belarusian makes a living off of going for the corners.
Kvitova is go for broke player who realizes that while she is fitter than she was last year, movement isn’t her forte so she attempts to get her nose in front of every rally. But so does Sharapova, whose service speed is not quite where it was pre her October 2008 shoulder surgery, but all around, she can hit the lines with lightening speed.
Much of the contest will be decided on who keeps up a high first serve percentage, because both the 24-year-old Russian and the 21-year-old Czech are hyper active when returning. Sharapova is more consistent and accurate in her return game, but Kvitova did not hesitate to push Azarenka back whenever she didn’t nail a meaningful serve deep or close to the lines.
“It will be totally first strike on the ball,” said Tennis Channel analyst Martina Navratilova, the last left-handed woman to reach the Wimbledon final in 1994. “I think Maria probably has the best return in the game. With the serves, I think Kvitova will get on top of the rally a little bit earlier than Maria maybe. It's such a tossup. Once the ball is in play, Sharapova has an edge with Petra, as well, but not so big. She hits such a heavy ball.”
There is more on the table for Sharapova than there is for Kvitova, because it has taken the former No. 1 nearly three years to get back to a Grand Slam final after her near career ending shoulder surgery. She says she become a realist, but she did grow very frustrated at times with her lack of progress, especially last summer when she had a terrific hard court build up to the US Open and then played a vacuous and error strewn match in falling to No. 1 Caroline Wozniacki. But she has not played better at any time during her comeback than she has since mid- May, winning 16 of her last 17 matches.
She is not going into the final as the underdog, but as the favorite and as someone who is looking for a huge reward for all the hard work she put in just to return to respectibility.
“I think when you know how good it feels to lift the big trophies, the ones you really want in your career, and when you know how good you can play, I always felt like I could be better, and that's why I never had the interest of stopping,” Sharapova said. “I always felt like I had a lot better things in me.”
Kvitova and Sharapova have played once, a victory for the Russian on an indoor hard-court in 2010 Memphis, but they will put that contest aside. What the tall and bright eyed Czech is looking to do is to become the leader of her generation and if she takes out Sharapova, she will stand above the Slam-less No.1 Caroline Wozniacki, Azarenka, Lisicki, Aga Radwanska and Dominica Cibulkova. She’ll will be the first player of her somewhat underachieving generation to win a major and that alone is worth crowing about.
“She won here already, so she knows how it is going in the final at the Wimbledon,” Kvitova said. “She has an advantage with this. But we played already and I lost, so now I have to beat her.
Matt Cronin is a senior writer for Inside Tennis magazine, and the co-owner of the award winning TennisReporters.net. He writes the Ticker for Tennis.com, contributes regularly to Reuters, and is a radio analyst for all the Grand Slams. He just published the book, “Epic: John McEnroe, Bjorn Borg and the Greatest Tennis Season Ever.”