MELBOURNE—The moment had come. It was earlier than Petra Kvitova had hoped it would be, but it was going to happen at some point over the next two weeks: She was lost out there.
Kvitova was starting a third set that she hadn’t anticipated she’d be starting. She knew who her opponent, Carla Suarez Navarro, was, and she knew that she could be dangerous. Kvitova had watched her beat Venus Williams at this tournament three years ago, and realized that the Spaniard’s game—one-handed backhand, heavy topspin forehand—wasn’t what she usually faced. As Kvitova said afterward of Suarez Navarro, in her no-wasted-words way: “She can play well how she plays.”
Still, this was the second round, Suarez was unseeded, and Kvitova, like it or not, had to admit that she was the Wimbledon champ and that she was supposed to win matches like this, no matter how well her opponent was playing.
“It was strange when I was announced as one of the favorites for the tournament,” Kvitova said. “It’s a new side of my life, and I have to get used to it.
“It’s great to be ranked No. 2, but everything, it’s different," Kvitova continued. "It was easy to be No. 30 and be an outsider [underdog] in the match. I have to be fine with this now.”
As the third set started, it didn’t appear that she was fine with much of anything. As had happened many times before, Kvitova had, seemingly out of nowhere, lost her forehand. The shot had held up well early, and she had ridden it to a 6-2 first-set win. But as the second set progressed, she had begun to pull up on it, to slap at it. The results were predictably horrible. This was the flip side of Kvitova’s risky brilliance—the fall off the high wire.
In the past, Kvitova had struggled to pick herself up or find her range again once she lost it; what would happen now? When she missed another forehand to lose the first game of the third set, she had to fight off tears as she crossed to the other side of the court. When Suarez Navarro broke her with a nasty backhand angle in the next game, and Kvitova followed that with yet another forehand error, she stared toward her player box with a look of raw panic. Two points later, after yet another miss, her racquet hit the court. She was about to go down 3-0.
It was interesting to see Kvitova in comparison to Suarez Navarro. The smaller Spaniard can’t match her for pace, obviously, but she plays with more spin, safety, and feel. Watching Suarez Navarro whip over her strokes and bring them down makes it clear how unsafe Kvitova’s shots are, and what her strokes lack—a margin for error.
This time, though, Kvitova worked through her panic attack. She did it by slowing down. She did it by making first serves. She did it by forcing herself to go point by point. She did it with the most effective cure of all: desperation. Up 15-30 on Kvitova’s serve at 2-1, Suarez Navarro hit a curling forehand that landed on the sideline. Kvitova made her greatest effort of the day to get over to it. Then she hit the most important shot of the match, a clean backhand crosscourt winner that left Suarez Navarro staring. Something clicked for Kvitova with that shot, some combination of effort and ability and confidence gained from 2011. Her comeback was on.
“I made many, many, many mistakes,” Kvitova said after 6-2, 2-6, 6-4 win. “Too many. I was hectic, you know. It’s my game that I’m playing winners. The mistakes are part of my game, too. I just tried to get more shots and be in the rallies with her and play smarter. That was the key.”
What does this mean for Kvitova going forward in Australia? She said it was good to have a test.
“I know that I can fight, and I can win if I’m playing badly,” she said.
Kvitova recognizes that errors are part of her style, but that there’s no getting around that if she wants to keep hitting winners. It’s part of a larger learning process for Kvitova. She’s finding out that she can win without her best, and that she can win as the favorite. It’s a lot to learn all at once, and you could see in the shy smile that she flashed during her post-match interview that she’s still getting a handle on it all. But she’s also still the relaxed young woman she’s always been. Asked about her next match, Kvitova admitted with a grin that she had “no idea” who she was playing. (It's Maria Kirilenko, a potentially difficult opponent.)
But today was, in its panicky way, progress. It used to be that, just when you thought Kvitova would surely win her next match, she wouldn’t. No matter how much she has improved, that scenario will happen again, maybe at this tournament. She's always going to be high-risk.
This afternoon, though, Kvitova turned the conventional wisdom about her around. Just when you thought she was going to lose, she won.