Looking Out for No. 1
by Steve Tignor
Fourth in a series on players to watch in 2012.
Last year at Melbourne Park, back when Petra Kvitova was still seen by most as a long-term project, a hope on the horizon, another hard-hitting young Eastern European, I sat down next to her on an otherwise empty side-court bench. She was by herself, watching a friend play in the juniors, and we talked for a bit. It’s said by many that Kvitova is on the shy side, but that’s not how she seemed to me. She was laid-back and friendly, even to a stranger with a journalist’s badge. She seemed cool.
I soon saw that cool in action, when Kvitova faced local favorite Sam Stosur in a night match in Rod Laver Arena. While Stosur quaked in the clutch, Kvitova raised her game to its highest level in the first-set tiebreaker, and walked out with a routine-looking upset win. She wasn’t a long-term project anymore.
For a few days, it looked like Kvitova might just go on to win the Aussie Open. In the middle of the second week, the press went out bright and early for her quarterfinal match with Vera Zvonareva, expecting more of the same ice-in-the-veins brilliance. Unfortunately, this time we got a look at the other side of Kvitova’s cool. She started horribly against Zvonareva and never appeared to try to rouse herself out of her funk. Her big eyes looked lost in the headlights, as if she couldn't remember how to hit two straight balls into the court.
But Kvitova's cool eventually served her well in 2011. The only thing more surprising than her demolition of Maria Sharapova in her first Grand Slam final at Wimbledon was how calm, even casual, Kvitova was through it all. Her ace at match point looked like it was hit as nervelessly as most of us hit our serves in the warm-up.
More than one tennis pundit declared a changing of the women’s guard, and it wasn’t hard to see why. The Wimbledon final, aside from crowning a new young champion, also had a nice symmetry to it. In the same final seven years earlier, a 17-year-old Sharapova had announced herself by staying remarkably calm in an upset win over Serena Williams. Now, Kvitova’s easy power from both sides felt like the next step in the evolution of the women’s game. She was like a new version of her countrywoman and fellow lefty Martina Navratilova, updated for the baseline age. Where Navratilova used her superior athleticism to rush and pressure opponents at the net, Kvitova does the same from farther back in the court. Though not too far back: I can’t think of many players who hit so many of their ground strokes from on top of, or inside, the baseline. Rafael Nadal could learn a thing or two from her.
Then Kvitova showed us why she wasn’t Navratilova just yet. She lost a dismal first-rounder at the U.S. Open and struggled for most of the second half of the season. It seemed that we had gotten our hopes too high, that she was going to be terminally inconsistent, that her long strokes and go-for-it-all instincts could produce as many shanks as they did winners, that she was never going to have a second gear to fall back on when the first wasn't working. Worse, it seemed like she was going to be blasé about it. Was she resourceful enough to win without her best? Was she too cool? That’s why her performance in the season’s final event, in Istanbul, was so satisfying. Kvitova never, even when she began to play poorly, looked like a deer in the headlights for long in any of her five matches, and she won them all.
With great performances come greater expectations. Some tennis fans think that the success of the WTA rides solely on Serena Williams’s shoulders. If the biggest star isn’t playing, it’s not worth watching. Others are waiting for Caroline Wozniacki to take the next step. But a lot of us are looking at Kvitova in the same way. If she doesn’t win a Slam and grab the No. 1 ranking, we may find ourselves asking again: Does anyone have what it takes to win big and win consistently this tour?
Still, there are a lot of reasons to like Kvitova’s game even when she’s not dominating: The athleticism that manifests itself in her battered ground strokes; her improved speed; the reach and extension on her serve; her spectacular, seemingly easy winners when she’s got everything going. Whatever her results, she’s not just a ball basher—she’s a shot-maker. The only thing that needs to go is the piercing shriek of relief that she lets out after winning a big point.
For those of us who think the (mostly) soft-spoken Kvitova’s success is what the women’s game needs—as much or more so than the regular charismatic presence of Serena—I think there’s a desire to see the game again defined and led by a great attacking player, a standard-bearer in terms of quality. That’s probably not going to be Serena in 2012; she’s already said she’s not going to play a full schedule. And it looks doubtful at the moment that it will be Wozniacki. Here’s hoping that Petra isn’t too cool to lead the way.