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FLUSNING MEADOWS, NEW YORK— Less than two months ago, Petra Kvitova won Wimbledon for the second time with one of the single finest performances of her career. She blasted the immensely capable Eugenie Bouchard off the court in the final, sprinkling the court with one outright winner after another, hitting out freely and unrelentingly, serving magnificently. The left-handed Kvitova played with such brilliance that afternoon on the Centre Court that it was hard to imagine anyone beating her when she was striking the ball so majestically.

That, of course, was Kvitova at her zenith, playing a dangerous brand of tennis, living close to the lines with shot after shot yet defying the percentages over and over again. In 2011 on the same fabled court, she had given a similarly masterful display against Maria Sharapova in the final, winning that match with shotmaking of the highest order against a great and highly accomplished champion at the most important tournament in the game of tennis.

We saw a very different Kvitova today in the third round of the U.S. Open. She was ushered out of the season’s last major by a cagey Serbian named Aleksandra Krunic of Serbia, a qualifier ranked No. 145 in the world. Krunic had a clearly defined gameplan, and it worked to the hilt. She gave Kvitova no pace in the rallies, feeding her opponent an endless barrage of soft shots off both sides, forcing Kvitova to engineer her own velocity. Kvitova had control of many rallies in this bewildering contest. She moved Krunic from side to side, opened up the court constantly, and created opportunities to conclude points with outright winners. But the left-handed Kvitova kept pressing, missing the finishing shot, shooting herself in the foot with costly mistakes that were born of apprehension.

Kvitova took the bait. She should have been able to blast her way out of trouble with big winners at the right times. The match was essentially in Kvitova’s hands. She had the capacity to dictate the course of the battle and to stamp her authority almost whenever she wanted, but Kvitova was found wanting in the end. She was thrown off guard considerably by Krunic’s speed during the rallies. Krunic covered the court with remarkable alacrity, chased down balls she had no right to reach, and prolonged points with her unbending will and impressive athleticism. She was defending with breathtaking skill. Long ago, Chrissie Evert would play Evonne Goolagong in the 1970’s, and the Floridian would find herself watching Goolagong’s grace instead of paying more attention to the nature of her next shot.

In some ways, Kvitova was in the same competitive boat and bind during her clash with Krunic. She seemed repeatedly chagrinned by Krunic’s quickness afoot. Krunic is no Goolagong in terms of grace or elegance, but she is incredibly scrappy and indefatigable. Her fighting spirit in this skirmish was impressive. Kvitova stared across the net a number of times incredulously, wondering how Krunic had run down another ball, bewildered that her opponent had taken winners away from her and somehow stayed in rallies that seemed lost. There was almost an air of resentment in Kvitova’s reactions, a haughtiness that seemed to suggest that Krunic was more lucky than good. That undisguised disgust clearly was a detriment to Kvitova’s cause as she bowed out 6-4, 6-4 in the third round.

Kvitova has now played seven U.S. Opens, and has not yet advanced beyond the fourth round. For a two-time Grand Slam tournament singles champion, that is not only disappointing but also distressing. She had been talking about the possibility of winning this tournament, and now she has bowed out early, a third round loser who should have done so much better.

At the outset, Kvitova seemed to be in decent shape. Although she lost her serve from deuce in the opening game with an unforced error off the forehand, Kvitova broke back immediately. She served her way into a 3-2 lead. The next game was critical. Kvitova had a break point for 4-2 but could not convert as she was coaxed into an error. Krunic held on tenaciously for 3-3. After Kvitova held for 4-3, Krunic captured three games in a row to seal the set. She held at love for 4-4 and then broke Kvitova in the ninth game. At break point down, Kvitova double faulted into the net. A composed Krunic held at 30 to win the set, taking it 6-4 with industriousness at the end.

In the second set, Kvitova raised her game at the outset. She moved into a 2-0 lead. The third game was pivotal in many ways. Kvitova had 40-30, only to double fault into the net. A persistent Krunic would not let go. She came through on her third break point to make it back to 1-2. That turnaround had residual benefits for the Serbian. She moved ahead 4-2 before a determined Kvitova saved two break points in the seventh game, holding on with temerity. Kvitova then broke back for 4-4 and fought hard in the ninth game to maintain her momentum.

But Krunic still had Kvitova off balance, ill at least, and out of sorts. At deuce, Kvitova approached crosscourt off the forehand, and Krunic countered with ease, sending a backhand passing shot sharply crosscourt for a winner. She soon had the break. Serving for the match at 5-4, Krunic played like a veteran, closing out the match on her second match point, holding at 15 with surprising conviction. The 6-4, 6-4 score-line was a clear reflection of what had transpired; Krunic had been the decidedly better player. Her strategy of containment had worked. Krunic won this match with her strong legs, huge heart and agile mind. Kvitova committed 34 unforced errors while Krunic made only 14. That was the fundamental difference between the two players.

Kvitova was sporting when it was over. If anything, she gave her opponent too much credit. Said Kvitova, “Yes, I’m very disappointed. I wanted to win today and unfortunately I didn’t. I think she played unbelievable tennis and she put a lot of balls back. Almost all of them…. I did mistakes. I was trying everything I could at that moment, trying to fight for every point, but it was so difficult. It wasn’t really my day. She played really great tennis today.”

Kvitova was asked about the rash of upsets at this year’s Open. She said, “I’m not sure what’s happening. All of the Grand Slams this year have big upsets. It’s the same here. Tennis is just so close. The levels are very close. Everybody can really beat everyone from the top, so it’s really difficult to stay on the top. It’s a lot of pressure. And the players are just better and better. It’s really tough.”

That is all fair enough. Kvitova is entirely accurate in her assessment that the women’s game has much more depth these days, and the level of play across the board is indeed much higher across the board. But she needs to focus on herself and figure out why she has not fared as well at the other majors as she has at Wimbledon. She has been to the semifinals at Roland Garros, in 2012. She reached the penultimate round at the Australian Open earlier that year. Those are respectable showings.

But she has the game to win the U.S. Open, and has never come even close. I hope that changes someday. Petra Kvitova is an exhilarating player to watch when she is at the height of her powers. She needs to succeed somewhere else at a major outside of Wimbledon. I hope she learns from this match. An unwavering retriever—no matter how good—should not beat her at a major on hard courts. Kvitova needed to impose herself much more than she did, to conclude points on her terms, to use her aggression and shotmaking genius to overcome a player with limited yet very impressive skills.

Petra Kvitova is gone from a compelling U.S. Open. In my view, that is not a good development.
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Steve Flink has been reporting on tennis since 1974. He has been a columnist for tennischannel.com since 2007. You can purchase Steve's latest book "The Greatest Tennis Matches of All Time" here.

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