It was 11 am in Melbourne, which was probably too early in the day for any strange or mystical occurrences. And yet that's what the crowd saw on the court at the Rod Laver Arena, as one player kept defying the rules of physics and gravity to leave her opponent more than a little shell-shocked.
Amanda Anisimova can hit a big ball, as anyone who saw her demolition of Aryna Sabalenka in the previous round would attest. She has smooth groundstrokes off both wings and can produce effortless power that can time away from anyone.
After that power-packed win over Sabalenka, it didn't seem possible that any player could take the racquet out of her hands. But that's exactly what Petra Kvitova did, as she blasted ball after ball out of the American's reach, shaking the sleepy crowd from their slumber with her searing forehand winners.
It didn't matter how cleanly Anisimova struck the ball or how hard she served; whatever she did, Kvitova was ready on the other side of the net, waiting to hit even harder.
More strikingly, she didn't put a foot wrong with her serve. She got a staggering 86% of first serves in, which is a particularly outlandish stat because Kvitova is not the kind of player who'll just roll the serve in. She aims for the lines at all times and hits with pace too, which actually makes her serve a bit of an unreliable weapon; she can get free points off it when it lands in, but it doesn't always land in.
That wasn't the case today. Every time Anisimova threatened to make inroads on the Kvitova serve, she was greeted by a big first delivery. And the follow-up shot was nearly flawless too; Kvitova won 83% of her first serve points, and she dropped just seven points on serve in total. Considering how big she returns, it's almost impossible for her to lose a match when she puts up those kinds of stats.
What's also almost impossible is redirecting pace of the kind that Anisimova generates. What do you do when the ball is coming at you at lightning speed and you know a short reply will only result in a winner on the next shot? If you are Kvitova, you simply take one step to your right, give yourself some room and blast a missile down the line.
The Czech has spent a large part of her career hitting players off the court, and today was just the latest eye-popping example of that. It was everything that defines her style of play and a reminder of just how sweet a ball striker she is.
How many of us believed she could get back to this kind of play? When she suffered that horrific knife attack in late 2016, her career seemed all but over. Any doubt we had about the severity of the attack was erased when we saw the pictures of her badly mangled left hand, with her fingers looking like chewed-on pieces of dead flesh. That left hand that had so terrorized players for half a decade, looked like it was broken beyond repair.
Much to everyone's surprise though, Kvitova was back on the court in a matter of months. She couldn't make much of an impact at her beloved Wimbledon, but her comeback gained steam in the latter half of 2017 when she reached the quarter-final of the US Open. It seemed like just a matter of time before she would become a regular presence at the business end of Slams again.
Then 2018 arrived, and a weird thing happened: she started dominating the smaller events, but flopping spectacularly at the Majors. She won as many as five titles in the year but failed to progress beyond the third round at any Slam.
Kvitova has always been known as a big-match player; she may never have had the consistency of say a Simona Halep or an Angelique Kerber, but you knew she would bring out the big guns on the big stages. Her two Slam wins – dominant performances at Wimbledon in 2011 and 2014 – perfectly epitomized what it means to rise to the occasion.
2018 was the exact opposite of that though. Almost every win at a tune-up event was followed by an early loss at a Slam. It was hard not to wonder whether this was going to be the pattern of her post-trauma career.
At the start of 2019, she won another relatively minor event, outlasting Ashleigh Barty in a marathon final at Sydney. Naturally, the fears resurfaced of a let-down at the Major that followed. Was she going to crumble at the Australian Open, out of exhaustion or whatever else that was ailing her in 2018?
We have our answer now. Kvitova has produced four dominant performances in Melbourne so far and is the favourite going into her quarter-final against Barty. Whether she wins that and makes her first Slam semi-final in five years is still up in the air, but she has shown that she is still capable of producing her best tennis when it really matters.
At her press conference today, she was asked whether she asks for early morning matches at the Slams, since she seems to play a lot of them. She replied that she hadn't and that she had even snuck in a nap right before the match.
"It was kind of weird to wake up at 10.30 to be ready in half an hour for my match. But sometimes it's really important since I'm playing so many matches, I just need to rest. Every nap is very welcoming," she said with a laugh.
Kvitova needs her naps, but the crowds in Melbourne Park definitely won't be napping come the quarter-final match against Barty. After all, there are likely to be a few strange and mystical things on display – like some physics-defying power tennis from the evergreen Czech.
Updated Date: Jan 20, 2019 16:25:20 IST