Coming Home

Saturday, July 05, 2014 /by
Photos by Anita Aguilar
Photos by Anita Aguilar

WIMBLEDON, ENGLAND—If you flip through the record books, it’s possible to find a few Wimbledon finals that featured a performance like the one Petra Kvitova gave us on Saturday. Billie Jean King’s swan-song, 6-0, 6-1 drubbing of Evonne Goolagong at age 31 in 1975, and Pete Sampras’s three-set blitz of Andre Agassi in 1999 remain towering examples of tennis mastery. But while Kvitova isn’t in Pistol Pete's or BJK's league as a champion, she was their equal for a day—or at least for the 55 minutes she needed to beat Eugenie Bouchard, 6-3, 6-0. Kvitova's first shot was a thunderingly powerful forehand return that Bouchard couldn’t hit back. Her last was an even better backhand that Bouchard couldn’t even reach. Most of the the shots Kvitova hit in between were just as good.

“I knew from the first point what I had to do,” Kvitova said afterward. “I knew I had to push her, before she could push me. It wasn’t a big plan, I just knew I had to play my game."

By making it imperative that she go for her shots as soon as she could, Kvitova and her coach, David Kotyza, freed her up to play the type of overwhelmingly offensive tennis she had first shown the world here in 2011, and which she had repeated only intermittently since. This wasn’t P3tra, the doubting queen of the three-set match, the woman whose racquet runs hot and cold from one point to the next. This was Petra unleashed, liberated from worry, moving from strength to strength. Afterward, she could only explain her play by shaking her head and saying she was “in the zone.” Aces led to forehand winners, which led to backhand winners as her confidence grew, which then led to—and now she knew something special was happening—great defensive gets and winners on the dead run.

“I mean a few shots were really incredible,” Kvitova said, laughing, about her sudden, newfound ability to scramble. “I really couldn’t believe that I made it, actually....Really for the first time I said, ‘Oh my God, this is good!’ I can really run and put the ball back.”

Kvitova said she realized she was in the zone when she ran to her right and came up with a low, sharp-angled backhand pass to hold for 3-1.

“It was a really long shot,” she said, unable to suppress an ever-widening smile. “I did a passing shot. Was a huge rally. Maybe from that time I was like, ‘OK, that’s not normal.'”

The crowd, which was firmly with Bouchard—one London paper has already laid claim to the Canadian by calling her “practically British”—couldn’t help but roar for Kvitova after that winner. But even when the audience isn’t with her, Kvitova is one of those players—their numbers are legion—who feels like she’s coming home every time she steps onto Centre Court.

“I can say it’s a little bit like a Fed Cup [tie] when I’m playing in the Czech [Republic] and I feel the crowd,” she said of what she senses on Centre Court. “My stomach is a little bit funny. It’s just goosebumps.”

Kvitova hit 28 winners, a number that actually seems low, while Bouchard won just 37 points. In perhaps the ultimate sign of how one-sided the match was, Bouchard, despite losing 61 points, only committed four unforced errors. Kvitova didn’t give her a chance to make any more.

Where does this leave Bouchard? Her fortnight had been about the power of clear, composed thinking and a positive attitude to create your own reality, to do things that might seem impossible to other people. Time and again, the 20-year-old said that anything that stood in her way was just another “challenge,” another obstacle put there to inspire her to work harder. 

Genie had been so good at imposing her will that her opponent in the semifinals, Simona Halep, claimed Bouchard appeared to be “bigger” than she really was from the other side of the court, because she stood on top of the baseline. But you can only create your own reality for so long before you have face up to it. Today, standing across the net from the six-foot Kvitova, Bouchard didn’t look so tall anymore. She looked small and nervous. She looked, in other words, like she was playing her first Grand Slam final.

“I didn’t feel like I was able to play my game,” said Bouchard, who claimed she wasn’t overwhelmed by the moment. “She really took the chances away from me and was really putting a lot of pressure on me. I didn’t have that many opportunities.”

Bouchard was deflated in her press conference, but her even-keel, occasionally smiling demeanor wasn’t all that different from how she had looked and acted in her winning pressers. She said that after the match was over, while the players waited for the roof to close and the trophy ceremony to begin, she was taken to the room where the winner’s dish was being engraved with Kvitova’s name—a cruel coincidence. Maybe that break gave her a chance to let her emotions settle. By the time she got to the interview room, Bouchard was back on message. She said she would take the defeat as motivation and a learning experience.

“It was a big moment walking out onto Centre Court for a final,” Bouchard said. “I have that experience now. I know what it feels like. I hope I can walk out for many more finals. That’s the goal. I’m going to go back, work on my game, try to get better, because you always need to get better.”

As she said, there wasn’t a lot Bouchard could have done. Kvitova took the racquet out of her hand with her serve and her return. Perhaps Bouchard got a little caught up in playing aggressive tennis at all costs. It had worked for her in her first six matches, but there was no way she was going to take the initiative from Kvitova today. Her best chance may have been to run and play defense and see if Bad Petra could be coaxed out of hiding.

As it was, Bad Petra was nowhere to be found in SW19 this year. Kvitova began this tournament talking about the pain of her close quarterfinal defeat to Kirsten Flipkens 12 months ago, and she played these two weeks as if she were exorcising that pain. From the start, she seemed to believe that the trophy was hers to lose, and she wasn’t going to let herself lose it. You could see it in the way she beat Venus Williams while getting outplayed for much of the day, and you could see it in the way she never relented, or returned to earth, today.

Kvitova said she wanted to finish before the rain came, and she made it by a few minutes. I kept waiting for nerves to do their part, to force her into a few errors or lead to a few dicey moments, but she pounded right through them. The fact that Kvitova could start so well, and finish even better, was what made this one of the most impressive—gobsmacking, really—performances I’ve seen in any Grand Slam final, on this court or any other.

Yet you get the feeling that it could only have happened on this court for Kvitova. It was almost as if, coming back to Wimbledon, she fell in love with tennis again. There was a freedom and passion and determination to her play that isn't always there—her desire banished her doubt. Most of the legends of the past have felt that same inspiration on Centre Court. Kvitova may never be among those legends; she joked today about how far she has to go to match her countrywoman, Martina Navratilova. But on Saturday she put on a performance that will rank with their best.

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