Australian Open: Kumkhum d. Kvitova
Two years ago, Petra Kvitova was poised to claim the No. 1 ranking at the Australian Open. Two years later, Kvitova is ranked just five places below the top spot, but it couldn't seem farther away.
Why, you may ask? Well, the erratic Czech fell in the first round of the year's first Slam to world No. 88 Luksika Kumkhum, 6-2, 1-6, 6-4. The result was a result of the underdog's inspired play and Kvitova's mistakes, but for the former Wimbledon champion, this can only be considered a colossal disappointment.
If you've never heard of Kumkhum, you're probably not alone: Neither the WTA nor Australian Open website has a headshot photograph of her on file. But peruse the pages and you'll find that Kumkhum is 20 years old, hails from Thailand, and has a brief history with the Aussie Open, having won a main-draw match last year after qualifying for the tournament. You'll also discover that she broke Kvitova five times Monday and won nearly half of her 97 receiving points.
What those stats should tell you is that it was a terrible serving day for Kvitova, who has the potential to win a match with that shot alone. She lost this match with it, winning just 62 percent of her first-serve points and a paltry 38 percent of her second-serve points. Those struggles became opportunities for Kumkhum, who took the fight to the ground and forced Kvitova to match her consistency—which she could not, striking 40 unforced errors.
Kumkhum landed jabs very early on and ultimately threw the knockout punch with a combination of speed and accuracy, keeping Kvitova on the move and out of her comfort zone. She did so with an unorthodox style, hitting off both sides with two hands, which perhaps contributed to Kvitova's shortcomings. But more likely reasons were the angles Kumkhum generated with her backhand—hit with a looping delivery that resembles Kim Clijsters—and 5'6" pro's impressive court coverage.
With the match on serve midway through the third set, Kumkhum showed her versatility when she carved a slice backhand return that Kvitova was helpless to retrieve. It was a shot that highlighted her touch and timing, and highlighted a major difference between these two: When things weren't going well, Kvitova had no backup plan. That's not to say things were always rosy for Kumkhum—Kvitova tore through the second set and seemed ready to run away with the match—but she continued to try different tactics and give Kvitova different looks each point. On this day, small ball beat tall ball.
That return also gave Kumkhum a break point, to which Kvitova hit a most untimely double fault. But Kumkhum wouldn't serve out the match at 5-3, giving away two break points with double faults and ultimately surrendering the game on the third break point. There, Kvitova took command with her groundstrokes, a sight seen far too infrequently on this day. Her inconsistent play would return the very next game, and on Kumkhum's first match point, she used the pace of Kvitova's shots against her, a frequent sight on this day.
When Kvitova's last shot strayed wide, the capacity crowd gave Kumkhum well-deserved cheers; she bowed to each side of the stadium in gratitude. It should have been the other way around: Luksika, we're not worthy.