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Petra Kvitova's long road back to Grand Slam contention

Petra Kvitova (CZE) gives the Ladies' Singles trophy - the Rosewater Dish - a kiss after defeating Maria Sharapova (RUS) 6-3, 6-4.
by Matt Trollope
Friday 4 July 2014

Even the greatest players can find the spotlight a touch too harsh after winning their first Grand Slam trophy at a young age.

Pete Sampras won the 1990 US Open as a 19-year-old, but would not win another major title until Wimbledon in 1993. It was a similar story for Serena Williams, who burst onto the scene with her stunning 1999 US Open triumph at 17, only to have to wait until the 2002 French Open to taste Grand Slam glory again.

Novak Djokovic took exactly three years between his first major victory at the Australian Open in 2008, as a 20-year-old, and his second at the same event in 2011.

Sampras and Djokovic, in particular, both talked about how they struggled to adjust to life as a Grand Slam champion, suddenly being the hunted player that every rival had in their sights and dealing with unprecedented levels of expectation.

Petra Kvitova can empathise. “The worst (part) definitely – I wasn't really used to the attention after that. That was the biggest problem, I think,” she said of winning her first major title at Wimbledon in 2011 as a free-swinging 21-year-old.

“It wasn't really easy. For me, it was a new experience. You can read it many, many times, but you never know how it feels. I expect too much from myself after that. I thought that I probably need to win any match I'm going to play after that because I'm Grand Slam champion and everybody expecting from me just the best. It's not all like that.”

Since that incredible victory, which she sealed with an ace to beat Maria Sharapova in straight sets, Kvitova has struggled to reach similar highs. She has remained a consistent presence inside the top 10, winning six subsequent titles, and enjoyed some impressive Grand Slam results, including reaching the semi-finals at the 2012 Australian and French Opens.

Reaching another Grand Slam final, however, proved elusive. That was until this year’s Wimbledon: her semi-final victory over Czech compatriot Lucie Safarova sent her through to the title match at a major tournament for the first time in three years. It was a similar time-span – give or take a few months – for Sampras, Williams and Djokovic.

“I know that, after winning first Slam, if you're somebody young it takes some time to win the other," she said. "I hope that my time is here. I will do everything I can.”

Comparisons between Kvitova and this exalted trio – among the greatest players to have lived – may seem unusual. But on watching Kvitova storm to the title at SW19 three years ago, many experts were tipping the Czech lefty for greatness. She possessed all the weapons for sustained success at the All England Club: a huge serve, incredible power, great hands and volleying prowess.

Her hyper-aggressive mentality and flat, penetrating shots seemed tailor-made for grass. With the exception of the Williams sisters and maybe Lindsay Davenport, rarely had a player come along who could so thoroughly overwhelm opponents.

While greatness may not have been achieved just yet, perhaps Kvitova is beginning to tread such a path. Looking as sturdy and as confident as she ever has, she has mowed down a succession of opponents for the loss of just one set.

That came against Venus Williams in the third round, a glorious two-and-a-half hour slug-fest on Centre Court between two former Wimbledon champions that Kvitova won 7-5 in the third set. “I was so happy when I beat Venus. It was difficult match for me definitely,” she reflected.

You sensed that Kvitova was “back” after that victory. And she has carried that confidence all the way to the final, where she will face young Canadian talent Eugenie Bouchard. The dynamic will be different compared with the 2011 final; then she was the emerging player with nothing to lose, now she is the seasoned pro wearing the label of favourite.

“Bouchard is playing very solid game. She's a very good mover. She's nearby the baseline. I think it's very similar to my game,” Kvitova said.

“I think it's going to be tough battle. Definitely I had a few already, so I know how it's feel and what I can expect ... I really have to be focusing on everything and try to push her.”

Push her she no doubt will. Bouchard has enjoyed a charmed path to the final, with projected opponents Serena and Sharapova eliminated in the round before she was due to face them. In her deep Grand Slam runs of 2014, she has beaten just one top five player. She is yet to face anyone with the stature or the power of Kvitova. And the Czech is as quietly confident as she has been in a long time.

Put that down to the steep learning curve that followed her 2011 victory at Wimbledon. “I mean, it was everywhere. It was big surprise for me that I really was in the newspapers and everything. I didn't know before how it's feels. I'm used to it now and I know probably how to handle it,” Kvitova said. “I hope this experience can help me.”

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