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Steve Flink: Kvitova Triumphs On Biggest Stage Of All

7/2/2011 3:00:00 PM

WIMBLEDON—Consider the plight of Petra Kvitova, the No. 8 seed who was appearing in her first final ever at a major championship, performing in front of legendary champions like Martina Navratilova and Maria Bueno, facing a three time Grand Slam tournament singles champion named Maria Sharapova. Sharapova is one of the most daunting competitors in the business, a woman who can strike fear into the hearts and minds of her rivals every time she steps on the court, a player who was victorious on the lawns of the All England Club seven years ago at 17. Not only that, but Sharapova has been the single most consistent competitor in the women’s game since the spring, reaching the semifinals of Indian Wells, making the final in Miami, capturing the Italian Open in Rome, and recently driving her way into the penultimate round of the French Open on her worst surface.

Grass courts suit Sharapova much more than the dirt, and she had not lost a set on her way to the championship match. Kvitova, meanwhile, was performing with sporadic brilliance, but she dropped sets in her quarterfinals against Tsvetana Pironkova and again in the semifinals against Victoria Azarenka. In both of those contests, Kvitova had been unassailable while capturing the opening set, but had then advertised her vulnerability when losing the second set. To her considerable credit, she regrouped in the final set of each match and came away deservedly with victories, but her growing legion of boosters must have been concerned that another lapse brought on largely by nerves could be fatal against a champion of Sharapova’s stature and experience.

And yet, Kvitova seemed oblivious to the size of the occasion, unwilling to be intimidated by her renowned and accomplished adversary, and as self assured and relaxed as anyone could hope to be when making a debut in a major final. She swung freely and played boldly, hit harder and seized the initiative more frequently than Sharapova, and far surpassed her rival with her capacity to open up the court and take control of the points. Sharapova always seemed to be on her heels, reacting rather than dictating, guessing and defending instead of setting the pace, hoping she could win but knowing precisely what she was up against; in her heart, Sharapova could sense that she was probably going to lose unless her rival suffered a sudden anxiety attack.

Unmistakably, Sharapova was confronting an opponent who was getting better depth off both sides, and an athlete who was far more mobile and quicker off the mark. The 24-year-old did get on the board first, breaking serve in the opening game of the match, surprising Kvitova with the length of her returns. Sharapova took a swift 1-0 lead, but she found out in a hurry that Kvitova was not unduly worried. Despite connecting with four out of five first serves, Sharapova was broken at 15. The last point of that game was symbolic of the entire showdown. Kvitova’s penetrating forehand return gave Sharapova no breathing room at all, and the No. 5 seed was pressured into a forehand mistake. Unless Sharapova came up with an exceptionally well located first serve or a second serve of extraordinary depth, she was always under duress.

Kvitova fought off a break point in the following game and held on with one of her typically thundering forehands. Although Sharapova answered with a hold of her own for 2-2, it was apparent that Kvitova had the upper hand from the back of the court and on her returns. With Sharapova serving at 2-3, 30-30, the 2004 champion faltered badly, giving that game away with consecutive double faults. The first one went long and the second was into the net, and that essentially cost Sharapova the set. Kvitova held at 15 for 5-2, closing out that game with a 113 MPH service winner to the forehand. Sharapova released an ace at set point down in the following game, and held on gamely. But Kvitova was entirely poised in serving out the set at love, missing only one first serve, producing three serves in that game that Sharapova was unable to get back into play.

Kvitova took the crucial opening set, 6-3, and she was off and running. The gifted lefty broke Sharapova in the first game of the second set after the 24-year-old double faulted again at 30-30. On break point, Kvitova hit the edge of the baseline with an astonishing forehand down the line winner. Despite two double faults herself in the following game, Kvitova moved on to 2-0. Sharapova made her move there, holding at love in the third game, breaking back for 2-2 as Kvitova had an absolute sitter on the forehand but failed to put it away. Sharapova stood her ground, rolling a topspin lob winner over her adversary’s head. It was 2-2, and Sharapova was gaining some momentum.

That’s why the next game was so important. Sharapova had a 40-30 lead but she was guilty of a backhand down the line unforced error. During that exchange, there was some noise in the stands from a few unruly fans that seemed to distract Sharapova, but she would earn two more game points to hold onto her serve. Kvitova took away the first one with a scorching return that set up a backhand crosscourt winner. On the second, Kvitova used that kind of one-two punch again, lacing a huge forehand return to open up an avenue for a forehand winner off a short ball.

That was how it was all afternoon for Sharapova; she would gain a flicker of hope, sense that brief moment of possibility, and abruptly Kvitova would assert herself again with unflagging authority. Kvitova broke for 3-2 with a clean winning return off the forehand, her signature shot throughout the match. Sharapova responded admirably, breaking back for 3-3 with a brilliantly executed forehand inside-in return that Kvitova could only stab at in vain. Twice in the second set, Sharapova had broken back, but Kvitova kept blasting away on her returns and during the rallies. A deep backhand down the middle provoked Sharapova into a forehand driven wide, and once more Kvitova was ascendant, a service break ahead again.

This time, she would not look back. Kvitova held at 15 for 5-3 before Sharapova retaliated by holding at love in the ninth game. Sitting at that changeover, about to serve for the match, knowing how much was riding on the outcome of the following game, Kvitova was right where she wanted to be. As soon as she got up from her chair and started serving the most significant game of her young and promising career, Kvitova made it clear that she was ready to take on the challenge, and then some. She started with a crackling backhand down the line that was nearly an outright winner: 15-0. She answered a big return from Sharapova with a solid forehand down the line that forced her opponent into a running forehand mistake: 30-0. She spun a second serve to Sharapova’s backhand, and got the error she wanted: 40-0. And then, as if to underline her supremacy, Kvitova unleashed an ace down the T to hold emphatically at love, and win the match convincingly 6-3, 6-4.

Kvitova has established herself as the first left-hander to win Wimbledon since Navratilova captured a record breaking ninth singles crown in 1990. It was only the fifth tournament victory for the 21-year-old, but her fourth title of 2011. Earlier this season, Kvitova was victorious in Brisbane, indoors in Paris, and in Madrid. She also made it to the final of the grass court Wimbledon tune-up event at Eastbourne. With this landmark triumph, Kvitova has now captured 39 of 45 matches across 2011, which is no mean feat. This immensely capable woman from the Czech Republic—the first woman from that country to win Wimbledon since Jana Novotna in 1998—is only the fourth southpaw to reach the final of a Grand Slam event in the Open Era that commenced in 1968, joining 1969 Wimbledon champion Ann Jones, nine-time major singles titlist Monica Seles, and Navratilova in that elite category.

Clearly, Kvitova has a game well suited to the grass. Her instincts are excellent, and she goes for her shots without inhibition. Moreover, Kvitova has a terrific lefty slice delivery. Her wide slice in the Ad court wins her countless free points, but she can direct that serve down the T in the deuce court and make it fade away from opponents with the same kind of pace and precision. Furthermore, Kvitova moves her serve around skillfully, going into the body, sending it out wide to the forehand, always changing pace and direction. Kvitova’s forehand is surely is one of the best in tennis because she drives it relatively flat with remarkable control, and can hit winners at any time off that side, from all kinds of positions. Her two-hander may be less devastating but it is an awfully good shot that will only get better.

There is no good reason why Kvitova should not secure multiple majors over the course of her career, but only time will tell. The talent is there, the capacity for growth in her game unquestionable, the drive to perform in the game’s upper levels readily apparent. But, for the time being at least, I will remain only cautiously optimistic about Kvitova after what has happened in the women’s game recently. Think of some of the top of the line players who have fallen upon misfortune in recent years. A prime example is Ana Ivanovic, who won the French Open in 2008 at 20 but has been an enigma ever since. Others have failed to come to the forefront of the sport despite having enormous potential.

The hope here is that Kvitova will keep progressing and growing swiftly into her talent, making the most of her possibilities, seizing her chances whenever they are there. Being a left-hander is a distinct advantage she has over all of her contemporaries, and particularly on the lawns of the All England Club. But she has demonstrated all year that she can play sublime tennis on any surface, a fact backed up by her hard court tournament win in Brisbane, her victory indoors at Paris, and her clay court tournament triumph in Madrid. That is what you call versatility. It provides a lot of encouragement for those who want to see Kvitova emerge from this Wimbledon as not simply a new Grand Slam tournament champion, but more importantly as a player who can come through frequently on the premier stages in the years ahead.

Meanwhile, women’s tennis can celebrate its diversity. Three very different players and personalities have collected Grand Slam championships in 2011. Kim Clijsters secured the Australian Open crown, taking a fourth major in the process. Li Na became the first Chinese player ever to record a major tournament triumph when she was victorious at Roland Garros. And now Petra Kvitova has capped off a commendable first half of 2011 by taking her first major, and establishing herself potentially as a serious force in the women’s gamer for years to come.

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