There are long-winding, convoluted solutions to problems, and then there are simple, uncomplicated ones. Petra Kvitova has always preferred the latter kind; when she’s struggling for timing on the court, she just hits out. And when she’s looking for confidence after an injury setback, she just gets back to her favorite hunting ground.
There can be no question that Wimbledon is Kvitova’s hunting ground of choice. She has won two titles at SW19 and feels completely at home here. Why wouldn’t she? Grass adds that extra bit of oomph to her already formidable game, and gives her the self-belief that she can make virtually anything possible.
In her second-round match against Kristina Mladenovic, Kvitova had to lean on that well of self-belief several times before she could come up trumps. The Czech has barely had time to recover from the left forearm injury that kept her out of the French Open, and on Thursday, she barely had time to gather her thoughts before Mladenovic was jumping all over her serve. Facing an inspired opponent and playing with a physical issue that she wasn’t entirely sure how to deal with, Kvitova almost literally had her back to the wall in the early going.
But when it comes to the walls of your own house, it’s not such a bad thing to be backed up against them. Kvitova always knew she was in with a chance if she stuck to her guns, and that Mladenovic was bound to get tight when it was time to put the finishing touches. The Frenchwoman followed the script to a T; she sprayed the ball everywhere while serving for the first set at 5-4, which was all the invitation Kvitova needed to get back on level terms.
“At 5-4 she had a set point. (But) suddenly I took it, it was 5-all,” Kvitova said in her presser. “Yeah, of course, she helped me with some double faults over there. On the other hand, it’s tightness at the end of the set. I was probably a little bit stronger at that time.”
‘Little bit stronger’ turned into ‘considerably stronger’ over the next set and a half. Seemingly liberated by her close escape, Kvitova rediscovered the range on her groundstrokes and pummeled Mladenovic into submission – almost making her look like an amateur player by comparison. After 5-5 in the first set Kvitova lost just two more games the rest of the way, and one of them was where she got broken. Mladenovic simply couldn’t find a way to hold serve once she had given it up from a position of strength.
While Kvitova’s legacy has largely been built on her serve and forehand, her return of serve is perhaps one of the most underrated shots in the game. It can be erratic on bad days, but when she’s in the groove it’s almost as effective a point-constructor as her serve. Whether she’s lunging to get a wide serve back in play or taking a big swing at a soft serve, the Czech can get hit the return with tremendous depth and pace to handcuff her opponents in a way that very few in the world can.
Her return was particularly devastating in the second set against Mladenovic. She found the corners and the edges of the lines with unerring accuracy, forcing the Frenchwoman to back off and throw up short replies. And there’s nobody quite as good as Kvitova at putting away short replies; the winners’ column started ticking over rapidly as the match wore on.
This was the first strike – or was it the second, considering it started with the return? – tennis at its finest.
But it’s pertinent to ask why Kvitova didn’t play that way from the start. Why did she look like such a different player from the first set to the second? The answer could be the forearm injury; it could possibly have made her more tentative than usual at the start.
On Thursday, Kvitova wasn’t wearing the protective sleeve or the athletic tape that she had been sporting the previous couple of weeks, but she revealed later she’s still struggling with physical issues.
“It’s still the same,” she said after the match about the injury. “I can’t say it’s better, I can’t say it’s worse. I mean, I’m feeling everything on my body.”
You’d think it was borderline miraculous she could play as well as she did in the second set while not being 100 percent. But this is Kvitova, a woman who has made a career out of making the miraculous look routine. Aside from her remarkable return to the sport from a knife attack that decimated her playing hand two years ago, Kvitova’s day-to-day exploits have also regularly assumed superhuman levels.
When the Czech is on her game, especially on a quick surface like grass, there’s very little that can stop her. The force of her tennis is such that it needs no strategising or variation to succeed; all it requires is a little bit of conviction.
She was asked in her presser whether she had to switch to a plan B after seeing that things weren’t going her way in the first set. But Kvitova confirmed what everyone suspected all along; that she never really needed a plan B.
“I think I just stuck with the game A,” she said. “It’s difficult to have a game B on the grass. If I’m not playing my game, it’s really tough to win on the grass. I think when the match gets a little bit longer, I just play better and better. I felt much better in the rallies afterwards.”
It was a humble way of saying it, but what Kvitova effectively implied was that her basic game, if given time to settle and flourish, is strong enough to face any challenge on grass. There’s a reason she has won two Wimbledon trophies – she is actually that good.
Is Kvitova one of the favorites to win the title this year? Her injury will likely have as much say in that as her opponents, but we know that her path is straightforward: if she hits with conviction, she will win. Kvitova is an uncomplicated person that way.
Updated Date: Jul 05, 2019 10:27:16 IST