Mission impossible for Petra Kvitova to emulate her Czech mate Martina Navratilova
Wimbledon champion Kvitova can only dream of matching her hero's nine crowns
by Paul Newman, Friday 22 June 2012
They are from the same central European country, which has a population of just 10.5 million. They both play left-handed, both have an aggressive game and both won their first Grand Slam singles titles at Wimbledon at the age of 21. Although they were born 34 years apart, in hugely contrasting eras, you sense that Martina Navratilova and Petra Kvitova share a bond that can only grow stronger.
Kvitova, who was born in Bilovec in 1990, the year after the "Velvet Revolution" ended four decades of Communist rule in her country, made her breakthrough at the All England Club last summer, winning her first Grand Slam final. Now all she has to do to emulate Navratilova is go out and do it again 58 more times. Navratilova, who was born in Prague in 1956 and sought political asylum in the United States 19 years later, has a record that defies belief. Her 59 Grand Slam titles comprised 18 in singles, including a record nine at Wimbledon, 31 in women's doubles and 10 in mixed doubles. She secured the last of them, the US Open mixed doubles crown, in her final match just one month short of her 50th birthday.
"I have a really long way to go," Kvitova said with a smile when asked about following Navratilova. "When I was growing up, she was my idol. Actually, my father was a really big fan and he showed me her videos when she played at Wimbledon. When I started playing she was still playing mixed and doubles, so that's how I know her."
There is a sense of awe in Kvitova's voice when she speaks about Navratilova, who in turn talks in admiring tones of the first time she saw Kvitova play, having been alerted to her talent by yet another Czech Wimbledon champion. "Jana Novotna was telling me about her," Navratilova recalled. "Then I saw her and I thought: 'God, if this girl gets it together, there's going to be trouble'."
At the start of last year, Kvitova was the world No 34 and had only ever won one tournament on the main tour, but after securing a title in the first week of the season she enjoyed a wonderful year. Five more titles followed, including Wimbledon and the WTA Championships, and she rounded off the year by leading the Czechs to their first Fed Cup title as an independent nation.
The only blip came between Wimbledon and the end of the US Open, where Kvitova lost in the first round, having won only two matches in the preceding two months as she struggled briefly to come to terms with her achievement. "It wasn't very easy getting used to being famous," she said. "Everybody stared at me in the supermarket and on the street. I think my life changed, for sure."
Kvitova still lives in her flat in Prostojev but has a new car. "I had a Skoda, but after Wimbledon I changed to BMW," she said. Does she like driving fast? "Unfortunately, yes." Has she collected any speeding tickets? "No, not yet. I'm a good girl."
Other than the new car (provided by a sponsor), Kvitova said she had not treated herself to a reward for winning Wimbledon. "I know I have money, but it's in the bank and for me, for now, it's only numbers," she said.
Although she has not won a title this year, Kvitova has continued to demonstrate her appetite for the big occasion by reaching the semi-finals of the year's first two Grand Slam tournaments, losing on both occasions to Maria Sharapova, whom she beat in the Wimbledon final.
Kvitova's game, based on big, attacking groundstrokes, is particularly effective on grass. Did Navratilova think Kvitova might one day threaten her Wimbledon record? "Well, she got started the same time I did with the first one and you never know," Navratilova said.
"These days it's hard to stay healthy long enough because the game is so much more physical, but the way she plays, if anybody could do it, it could be her because she plays such a powerful game. The points are short, so she doesn't have to exert herself that much. But let her win the second one, then we can talk more about it. It was a great effort and she wants it badly. That's a step in the right direction."
Kvitova admitted that arriving at Wimbledon this year as champion would be very different to how she felt 12 months ago. "I know there will be pressure, that I can't lose in the first round because it's a lot of ranking points and a lot of people are coming to watch me," she said. "I know how it will be, but I won't be thinking about whether I can do it again. I'll just go step by step."
Navratilova said that Kvitova's 6ft frame and power were an advantage, but added: "She just needs to get a little lighter on her feet. It's so easy to think: 'I can just power through this.' Four out of five times you can, but the fifth time it's going to go out. On clay that doesn't win and in the wind that doesn't win. When things go your way, great, but when they don't that's when perfect technique and perfect footwork come in handy.
"I learnt new footwork when I was 32, with the cross-step to the outside, so you can retool or improve. Petra doesn't need to retool, but she can definitely improve. She's 22. I was clueless at that age, so she's way ahead of me on that one." Had Kvitova modelled her game on Navratilova's? "That's a question for my father because he was my coach until I was 16," she said. "I think I was born with this aggressive game inside me. I got my calmness from my Mum."
For a country of modest resources, the Czech Republic has an astonishing tennis pedigree. In the last 60 years, the country has produced eight Grand Slam singles champions in Navratilova, Kvitova, Novotna, Hana Mandlikova, Jaroslav Drobny, Jan Kodes, Ivan Lendl and Petr Korda.
"The club system there produces really good players," Navratilova said. "You have it in France also. You don't see it in the States, you don't see it in England. In other countries you go to the club, hang out and play sports. Kids become much better all-round athletes, they're active, they're healthy and they're doing it for fun."
Kvitova believes that Czech parents instil a strong work ethic in their children, while Navratilova stressed the quality of Czech coaching. Kvitova works with David Kotyza, although Navratilova said she would always be happy to give some advice, as she did before last year's Wimbledon final.
"She told me I have to not think it's the Wimbledon final, that it's a normal match, and that I can do it," Kvitova said. "When I went on court I was really lucky because it just felt like a first-round match or something."
Does Kvitova call Navratilova for advice at other times? "No," Navratilova said. "She's probably too shy for that. I'm sure she will as the years go by."