After holding serve for 2-0 in the first set, Petra Kvitova must have been feeling good. She’d broken to start the match and then consolidated, and she was controlling the rallies with her opponent, Caroline Wozniacki, with ease. So rather than limply toss the ball to a nearby ball kid who would send it across the net, Kvitova took the responsibility herself and let a long overhand toss fly. She didn’t throw it hard, but she threw it with the loose grace of the natural athlete, of someone who loves to use her strength. Maybe it was the fact that she was throwing left-handed, but the motion reminded me of another natural athlete from the Czech Republic, Martina Navratilova.
Does that sound like a ridiculous comparison? It is—so far. Navratilova, besides the umpteen titles, was a much more agile and graceful mover (has anyone ever moved forward on a tennis court like Martina?). Kvitova, by comparison, can struggle when she’s pushed and stretched, and she has trouble getting her body out of the way and in perfect position when she’s surprised and forced to improvise—finesse will never be her forte. But she does have something that very few players can match, and what may make the Navratilova comparison less ridiculous someday, is the ability, particularly with her forehand, to hit the ball right on the money from virtually any position. More than once against Wozniacki today, Kvitova seemed either in the wrong spot or too rushed to possibly hit a winner, and then hit a winner anyway.
The final score was 6-4, 6-2, but the story of the day was better told by a TV graphic that showed Kvitova hitting nearly 50 percent of her ground strokes from inside the baseline, compared to 17 percent for Wozniacki. Sooner or later, that kind of positioning advantage is going to tell. Kvitova, as always, hit her share of shank backhands—typically a brilliant winner from that side is followed by a second, wayward attempt at the same shot. It has seemed to me in the past that she simply doesn’t have a second gear rally shot from that side, but I did notice her pulling back a little on her backhand in the second set. Instead of rifling it outright, she used it set to up her forehand. It's a small sign, but a good sign. Judging by the second-set score, Kvitova should be able to see that she doesn’t have to go for broke, doesn't have to be hit-or-miss, to be effective.
Today she was mostly hit, with not a lot of miss. It wasn’t a total blowout; Kvitova was forced to come up with a lot of good shots at 30-30 and 40-30. But when she does come up with them, nobody can stop her. At 2-1, 30-30 in the first set, she hit a colossal backhand cross-court winner and followed it with an even sharper angle on her serve into the deuce court for an ace. I don’t care what your ranking is, the first tactic against Kvitova for any player is to hope she’s not at her best. There’s not a whole lot you can do if she is.
That said, this wasn’t Wozniacki’s day, either. She complained of dizziness at the end of the first set and was checked by a doctor. And she was obviously weary by the end of the match; she was coming off two three-set matches in two days. This is the downside of a round-robin. As intense as it can be to see the Top 8 squaring off in a compressed schedule, that schedule inevitably leaves some players more tired or less motivated than their opponents as the week progresses. Today a weary Wozniacki got a rested Kvitova, and it may have cost her a spot in the semifinals.
As for the Czech, she marches toward the weekend with no sets lost. She’s moving forward with the dispatch of a countrywoman of hers that we know well.