Winning the Trophy, Carrying the Torch

Thursday, July 10, 2014 /by
AP Photos
AP Photos

The bar for Petra Kvitova at Wimbledon was set high—very high—long before the 24-year old pride of Bilovec had to meet the likes of Venus Williams, Lucie Safarova, and Eugenie Bouchard. The bar was placed by the great tradition of Czech tennis, and in the end Kvitova cleared it with daylight visible under her.

In the final, Kvitova simply demolished one of the most dangerous types of opponent: An eager, mature, poised competitor hoping to build upon an astonishing breakout during which she had already been to two Grand Slam semifinals. But the breakout became a blowout, as Bouchard was beaten by a woman who took the power game to new, perhaps previously unmatched heights.

Bouchard handled the stress of playing her first Grand Slam final admirably; there were no tremors nor tears of the kind shed by Sabine Lisicki while she was getting her clock cleaned by Marion Bartoli in the 2013 title match. There were only those savage, vicious winners pouring from Kvitova’s racquet. Bouchard was present and accounted for during the final; the one-sided score was strictly a tribute to Kvitova’s prowess.

Kvitova hit a dazzling 28 winners that accounted for nearly half of the total points (61) she won. She made just 12 unforced errors, which left Bouchard winning just 25 points under her own initiative. Most startling, perhaps, is that Bouchard made only four unforced errors in the entirematch; how often has a player with so few misses lost, three-and-love?

If this wasn’t a great match, fans and spectators could at least console themselves with the fact that they witnessed one of the greatest performances any player has produced in a Grand Slam singles final. Oh, others have blown out opponents, but few have done so as persuasively, as unilaterally, as overpoweringly as Kvitova. July 5th, 2014, was a day on which Kvitova might have shown even that Wimbledon icon Martina Navratilova what havoc a lady might wreak with a left hand.

Navratilova, of course, was also left-handed. Yet for all her athleticism, which remains the WTA gold standard, she never fully reaped the advantages of playing lefty. Kvitova, by contrast, has that southpaw’s mark of cain as surely as did John McEnroe, or even Rod Laver. Unlike Navratilova, Kvitova has that wicked, Bend-it-like-Beckham slice serve. The forehands of both women were/are somewhat shaky, but Kvitova’s is explosive in a way that Navratilova’s never was. Navratilova’s backhand was more versatile, but she earned great rewards with her sliced backhand approach, a shot would not be nearly as valuable in today’s high-octane game.

Navratilova also was Czech, although she defected to the U.S. in 1975 at age 18 and to escape Communist rule and became an American citizen. Ivan Lendl, another Hall-of-Fame Czech player, was 15 at the time Navratilova defected. Having been burned by Navratilova’s defection, the Czech string-pullers dared not go through all that again with Lendl. They basically looked the other way while Lendl took up residence in the U.S., where he became a citizen in 1992.

The rulers of the Czech Republic during the heyday of the Soviet empire damaged their nation in many ways. It almost trivializes the experience of the Czech people to single out the damage done to the nation’s tennis tradition, but it was real and, at least for our purposes here, significant.

Just imagine if Navratilova (winner 18 Grand Slam singles titles, including nine at Wimbledon) and Lendl (eight major titles, and eight straight U.S. Open singles finals) were born in the late 1980s or the early 90s. Does anyone doubt that, given the changes and liberalization that accompanied the break-up of the Soviet empire, Navratilova and Lendl would have happily stayed put, much like today’s generation of Czechs? Just ponder the implications for Davis Cup, the Olympics, and the competition for bragging rights among nations if that were the case.

Well, wishing won’t change history. Discerning people know that the Czechs have the primary claim on Navratilova and Lendl, like they do on Kvitova. The new Wimbledon champ joins a national honor roll that also includes (among women) four-time Grand Slam champ Hana Mandlikova, Wimbledon champ Jana Novotna, and four-time Grand Slam singles runner-up Helena Sukova.

One of the more remarkable aspects of the Czech Republic’s history is how consistently the nation has produced competitive, Top 20-grade players, as well as Grand Slam champions. That history, as well as that of the lonely Czech, fleeing his homeland, began in earnest with Jaroslav Drobny, who played his first Davis Cup tie in 1946 and fled his homeland four years later to escape the Communist regime.

Drobny would win Wimbledon and two French Opens in the early 1950s, and has at least one record unlikely ever to be broken: He has represented four different nations at Wimbledon: Czechoslovakia, the “Protectorate of Bohemia and Moravia” (a Nazi construction during the occupation), Egypt, and Great Britain.

The Czechs, unlike their neighbors in Romania, Hungary, and some other European nations, were able to grow their presence in the game steadily and impressively. At Wimbledon, three of Kvitova’s opponents in six matches, including the semifinals, were fellow Czechs. In the big picture, growing the game consistently may be the most difficult assignment of them all—just ask the Germans.

Kvitova has now done her share, and the bar today rests a little bit higher for those who will undoubtedly follow.

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