How much do patterns and history matter in tennis? A great deal – even for someone as pattern-destroying and history-defying as Petra Kvitova.
The Czech has spent a good chunk of the last decade breaking open the carefully constructed templates of her opponents with stone-cold winners out of nowhere. She has also shown a remarkable ability to forget the many unforced errors she commits, by starting each new point with a blank slate.
But against Andrea Petkovic in the US Open second round, Kvitova couldn’t quite shake off the memories of her past struggles against the German. She also couldn’t find a way to counter the pointed incisions the German was making into her game; the stone-cold winners were still present, but never appeared when she needed them the most. The result? A surprisingly routine 6-4, 6-4 loss for the World No 6.
Petkovic has famously suffered the mother of all declines over the past few years. After breaking into the top-10 in 2011 and reaching a Slam semi-final in 2014, her body and game fell off a cliff; injuries and inconsistent form meant that she dropped out of the top-50, and stayed out. But even during that period in the wilderness, she never forgot the keys to playing Kvitova.
Petkovic carried a 5-5 head-to-head record against the Czech going into their second-round clash. Even when they met in the first round of the 2018 Australian Open, at a time Petkovic was nowhere close to the player she was half a decade earlier, the German pushed Kvitova to the absolute limit before winning 10-8 in the third set. Clearly, there’s something about her game that gives Kvitova fits.
“I’ve beaten her before in Grand Slams and important matches,” Petkovic said after yesterday’s match. “I know what doesn’t suit her.”
One of the most significant things that don’t suit Kvitova is the deep return that handcuffs her at the baseline. Kvitova loves using her lefty serve and 1-2 punch to take control of points, and the usual tendency among players to counter that is to make her stretch with the return and exploit her limited movement. But while that works a fair bit, Kvitova’s exceptional hand-eye coordination can help her use the extra room to free her arms and turn the tables around with a stinging reply.
What Petkovic did instead – and what she always does in their head-to-head matches – was repeatedly aim the return at Kvitova’s feet, forcing her to first try and get out of her own way before unloading on her groundstroke. It didn’t always work, but it prevented Kvitova from being totally confident of holding serve when she was faced with a 4-5 deficit in each set. She got broken both times.
That she even had to serve at 4-5 in the second set was down to some good old-fashioned retrieving by the German. Kvitova was up a break, serving at 4-3, when Petkovic reeled off a string of impressive gets to bring things back on level terms. The hold at 4-4 felt vital even when it was happening; the pressure of serving to stay in the match was always going to be enormous, and so it proved.
Petkovic also dealt really well with Kvitova’s net approaches, in a way that not many other players do. She didn’t go for outright passing winners, but she made the Czech bend low for more volleys than she’d have liked. The error came eventually – and that too at the most crucial moment in each set.
This wasn’t a typically error-strewn Kvitova match, even though she made 32 of them. The errors were pretty well spaced out; she didn’t even look likely to fall apart, the way she sometimes does on a bad day. It was just one of those days when the opponent’s game was particularly problematic for no obvious reason. It was one of those days when Petkovic’s subtle knocks piled up and turned into something unmanageable.
That sentiment was echoed by Kvitova in her post-match press conference. “I had my chances of course, but I was always missing,” she said. “I was a break up in the second and I should have made it. Overall I don’t think I played that bad really, but that’s how it is.”
When Kvitova was storming to the Australian Open final back in January, not many of us thought her Slam year would end in this fashion. Melbourne had seemed like the start of a new career for her at the time; her comeback from the harrowing knife attack complete, she looked ready to finally make full use of her considerable talent and become a perennial top 5 (or top 3) player. But an arm injury forced her out of Roland Garros, and she hasn’t quite looked like her world-beating self since.
Kvitova lost in the fourth round at Wimbledon and played just one match in the American summer hardcourt swing (a loss to Maria Sakkari in Cincinnati) while still recovering from the injury. Now her second-round loss in New York means that she has completed another year of Slam futility, despite looking so close to ending the drought at the start.
Petkovic on her part has been suffering a drought too – of second-week appearances, rather than Slam titles. She has a chance to end that against Elise Mertens, in what will be just her third 3rd round match in the last four years. The German has fallen a long way – longer than anyone thought possible – but things are looking up for her again.
The 32-year-old may not have too many more deep Slam runs in her, so she’ll want to make the most of this opportunity. But even if she doesn’t, we know that there’s at least one opponent who she will always relish playing; her matchup against Kvitova just has too many things going in her favor.
Updated Date: Aug 30, 2019 10:31:06 IST