Steve Flink on our Lioness
Petra Kvitova can be both exhilarating and exasperating. She is an enigma in many ways, an immensely gifted player with a propensity to take control of almost any match she plays, a prodigious shotmaker who can effortlessly release winners off both sides richly and abundantly from any part of the court. She is a dazzling left-hander who leaves opponents befuddled by making improbable shots routinely, and yet this woman can also commit abysmal unforced errors with alarming regularity. She can be her own worst enemy, or an unstoppable force who doesn’t care who happens to be standing on the other side of the net. Kvitova is unexplainable, and that makes her a singularly fascinating performer in the world of women’s tennis.
A few days ago, Kvitova secured her first singles title of the young 2013 campaign, taking the Dubai Duty Free Tennis Championships with impressive wins over Daniela Hantuchova, Ana Ivanovic, Agnieszka Radwanska, Caroline Wozniacki and Sara Errani. Kvitova played the kind of tennis her most fervent boosters wish she could replicate almost all of the time. She controlled her destiny every time she stepped on the court, left her adversaries bewildered and fundamentally helpless, kept her composure nearly every step of the way. The previous week in Doha, Qatar, Kvitova had pushed Serena Williams to the hilt in a stirring quarterfinal contest, building a 4-1 third set lead before the American battled back gamely and tenaciously to win. Clearly and irrefutably, Kvitova is moving in the right direction, and the women’s game is better for it.
In the Dubai final against Errani, Kvitova was primed for her appointment against the versatile Italian. In the early stages of this showdown, Kvitova was striking the ball majestically. Her timing was exemplary, her confidence was soaring, and the ball was flying off her racket with extraordinary pace and precision. It was a pleasure to watch her play with such verve and uninhibited brilliance. Kvitova broke Errani at love in the first game of the match, opening that chapter with an inside-out overhead winner, closing it with a barrage of big shots that led to an inside-out forehand winner. She held at 30 for 2-0, winning all four of her points with clean winners off the forehand side.
The pattern continued. On her way to 15-40 in the third game, Kvitova produced two more winners. An understandably shaken Errani double faulted, and Kvitova had the insurance break for 3-0. She had won 12 of 15 points to establish her comfortable lead. Although Kvitova was taken to deuce in the fourth game, she moved to 4-0 with a backhand winner driven impeccably down the line. Errani managed to take the next two games. But Kvitova played another spectacular game to break for at 15 for 5-2, cracking four outright winners, two off the forehand and a pair off the backhand. Although Kvitova struggled on serve in the eighth game, she held on her fourth set point to seal the set 6-2.
When Kvitova broke Errani in the opening game of the second set, a rout seemed entirely possible. But the sprightly Italian began altering her game sweepingly, and her new strategic framework was highly effective,catching Kvitova considerably off guard. Errani looked for her every opportunity to attack, and did so remarkably well. Errani’s flexibility was admirable, and a reflection of her status as one of the world’s best doubles players. Her technique on the volley is terrific. After breaking back for 1-1 in that second set, Errani held at love for 2-1. With Kvitova serving at 30-15 in the fourth game, Errani adroitly took the net away from her opponent with a well-played lob, and then came forward to make a sparkling backhand drop volley winner.
Kvitova battled on, saved a break point at 30-40, but then Errani approached behind a return of serve to provoke Kvitova into an errant backhand passing shot long. Kvitova was briefly rattled, serving her sixth double fault of the match to fall behind 3-1. Errani held quickly at 15 for 4-1.With Kvitova serving at 15-40 in the following game, Errani followed her return in, and then put away an overhead to make it 5-1 in her favor. At 30-30 in the seventh game, Errani served-and-volleyed, setting up a backhand volley winner. She sealed the set 6-1. Errani had lost all three of her previous contests with Kvitova in straight sets, but now at last she had snapped that streak, giving herself a fighting chance.
The pivotal game of the match occurred at 1-1 in the third and final set. Kvitova had already danced out of some danger in the opening game, saving a break point. But now, in the third game, with Errani building momentum steadily, the emotional lefty fell behind 0-40. She could hardly have displayed more poise and professionalism than she did at this critical juncture. Kvitova released a service winner wide to the backhand for 15-40,then sent another excellent first serve up the T to set up a forehand winner for 30-40, and made it back to deuce with a trademark inside-out forehand winner off an awkward high ball. Kvitova held on for 2-1 by sweeping five points in a row, missing only one first serve in that span.
Errani moved to 40-15 in the next game, but Kvitova swept three consecutive points. It was break point for the 22-year-old from the Czech Republic. Errani had come this far by changing her tactics and approaching the net persistently, so she stuck with that plan. But Kvitova was ready. Errani served-and-volleyed but Kvitova rolled a forehand return crosscourt for a winner past the charging Italian. It was not the cleanest shot Kvitova played all day, but it was the most important. She had the break for 3-1 in the third set, and never looked back. Holding at love for 4-1, she produced four more winners, two off the forehand and two on her two-handed side.
There was no stopping Kvitova. Errani fought through two deuces in the sixth game, but Kvitova was relentlessly aggressive, attaining the break for 5-1 with a winning forehand down the line on the edge of the sideline. She held at love to win convincingly 6-2, 1-6, 6-1. The final statistics are very revealing. Kvitova had 46 winners and 36 unforced errors,while Errani made only ten unforced mistakes and hit eleven winners. This was Kvitova’s tenth triumph in twelve career tournament finals, which proves that she is awfully tough to beat under those circumstances. Only a first rate, big match player wins so many final round contests. Her problem, of course, is avoiding early round losses, defeats she could probably avoid, setbacks of her own making. Perhaps over the next few years, this sporadically brilliant player will find a level of consistency she has lacked thus far.
And yet, the fact remains that Kvitova has been in the upper reaches of her sport for quite a while now. In 2011, she concluded the season as the No. 2 ranked player in the world, surpassed only by Wozniacki. That year, she appeared in her first and only Grand Slam tournament final, facing the estimable Maria Sharapova on the Centre Court of Wimbledon. Calmly, methodically, often spectacularly, Kvitova took apart Sharapova in straight sets to win the game’s preeminent prize at 21. In 2012, Kvitova had a surprisingly stable run at the majors, reaching the semifinals of the Australian Open and Roland Garros, the quarterfinals of Wimbledon and the round of 16 at the U.S. Open. But her results elsewhere were not terribly impressive, and she finished the year at No. 8 in the world.
That is too low for a player of her talent. Kvitova has moved to No. 7 after her tournament victory in Dubai, her first since New Haven last summer. The hope here is that she will do herself justice over the course of 2013 and beyond, and return where she belongs to the top five. To be sure, the three players who reside at the top of the rankings will be hard for Kvitova to overcome on a regular basis. Serena Williams, Azarenka and Sharapova are a trio of champions who are all playing the best tennis of their lives. But the players who are stationed just above Kvitova are competitors she ought to be able to surpass.
Kvitova handled world No. 4 Radwanska with ease in Dubai, and at her best she is a better player than the elegant Polish defensive stylist. Li Na is currently No. 5, and the beguiling Chinese player is a resurgent competitor as she moves toward her 31st birthday on Tuesday. But the view here is that Kvitova can move past Li later this year. Meanwhile, Angelique Kerber stands at No. 6. The German left-hander is clearly not the same player now that she was a year ago.
Kvitova did not start this season auspiciously. In her first five tournaments leading up to Dubai, she did not make it beyond the quarterfinals. She fell in the second round of the Australian Open in a hard fought encounter against Laura Robson. But her mindset has changed lately, and her game is coming around magnificently. The one area of concern for Kvitova must be her serve. She double faults far too often, and needs to become more reliable on her delivery if she wants to overcome the leading players in her profession.
But her ground game is so devastatingly potent that Kvitova seems destined to move back among the top five. She can make a serious run again at a major this year, perhaps at Wimbledon, if not at the U.S. Open. For too long now, she has been wildly unpredictable and infuriating, wasting her great gift for this game, squandering opportunities across the board. The next couple of years are crucial for Petra Kvitova, but the feeling grows that she is closing in on the finest tennis of her career.