Splendor in the Grass

by: Cindy Shmerler | June 23, 2015

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Petra Kvitova has twice reigned at the All England Club, but can she find the consistency that will make her a year-round force? (AP)

Petra Kvitova is groggy. When she answers the phone at her home in Prostejov in the Czech Republic, she sounds as if she has been awakened from a deep slumber.

“No, no,” she says with a slightly hazy chuckle. “I am just having a massage.” Then she laughs again, her high-pitched voice trying hard to come back to life.

If life feels a little dreamy for Kvitova these days, that’s because it is. At 25, she iPetra Kvitova is groggy. When she answers the phone at her home in Prostejov in the Czech Republic, she sounds as if she has been awakened from a deep slumber.

“No, no,” she says with a slightly hazy chuckle. “I am just having a massage.” Then she laughs again, her high-pitched voice trying hard to come back to life.

If life feels a little dreamy for Kvitova these days, that’s because it is. At 25, she is a two-time Wimbledon champion, the No. 4-ranked player in the world and the anchor of her nation’s third Fed Cup championship in the last four years. She is, by her own admission, more grown up and accustomed to the limelight, and hopes that maturity will help her avoid the pratfalls of winning big one week and then losing meekly in her next tournament.

“When I won my first Grand Slam [at Wimbledon in 2011] I was quite young and didn’t know how to handle it,” Kvitova says. “I think [2014] was much better because I knew what to expect.”

Few have questioned Kvitova’s talent since she burst on the scene with a fourth-round finish at the 2008 French Open (her first major). She then upset world No. 1 Dinara Safina at the 2009 US Open and had a semifinal run at Wimbledon in 2010 that included wins over Victoria Azarenka and Caroline Wozniacki.

With a sturdy six-foot frame and a lefty hook shot reminiscent of her idol, fellow Czech-native Martina Navratilova, Kvitova, at her best, can bully anyone on the court. She did just that in last year’s Wimbledon final, stunning Eugenie Bouchard 6–3, 6–0 in just 55 minutes.

But Kvitova can also lose to just about anybody, as she also showed last year. At the 2014 Australian Open, she lost to No. 87 Luksika Kumkhum in the first round, and was defeated in the third round of the US Open by Aleksandra Krunic, a qualifier ranked No. 145 in the world. (She also lost in the first round of the 2011 US Open to Romania’s Alexandra Dulgheru, becoming the first woman to follow a victory in a major with a first-round loss in the next one.) In all, six of her 16 losses in 2014 were to players ranked outside the Top 40. (One was a walkover against No. 70 Heather Watson in Eastbourne when she suffered a pulled hamstring.)

Despite Kvitova’s 43 match wins in 2014, only three were over Top 10 players: Bouchard at Wimbledon,No. 2 Sharapova in the round-robin stage of the year-end WTA Finals in Singapore and No. 10 Angelique Kerber in a dramatic three-setter to clinch the Fed Cup in Prague. At last year’s Wimbledon, Bouchard was the highest-ranked player Kvitova faced, though she did have to fight back from losing the opening set to five-time Wimbledon champion Venus Williams in the third round.

“Anybody who can win Wimbledon twice is pretty good,” says Czech native Ivan Lendl, an eight-time Grand Slam champion. “Some players are consistent and some are more streaky. [Kvitova] plays a high-risk game, but I really like the upside. She’s untouchable when she plays well. Maybe if she became more consistent, she might lose that upside.

“Her life became difficult in 2011 because of pressure and demands on her time,” adds Lendl, who coached Andy Murray to Wimbledon and US Open titles as well as an Olympic gold medal in 2012. “Now she’s gone through all that before, and she can handle it well. She’s a tremendous talent.”

Kvitova was born in March 1990, just months after the Velvet Revolution, the peaceful movement that ended 41 years of communism in Czechoslovakia. It was also four years after Navratilova returned to her native country to
represent her adopted country, the United States, against Czechoslovakia in the 1986 Fed Cup final in Prague.

“My father showed me some matches of when she played at Wimbledon,” says Kvitova of Navratilova, who was erased from the Czech record books after she fled. “That’s why she became my idol during those years.”

There was a time, in the early-1970s until the mid-80s, when tennis in Czechoslovakia flourished despite communist limitations. There was Jan Kodes, a two-time French Open and one-time Wimbledon winner. Navratilova led the country to its first Fed Cup championship in 1975, and Helena Sukova and Hana Mandlikova helped capture the Fed Cup three straight years, from 1983 to ’85. In 1988, Jana Novotna and Radka Zrubakova beat a Soviet team led by Larisa Savchenko and Natasha Zvereva. But once Navratilova left, followed not long after by Lendl and Mandlikova, top tennis talent dried up.

Kvitova grew up in Fulnek, a town in the Moravian region that, until 1918, was part of Austria. It was annexed by the Nazis in 1938 only to see the Germans expelled after World War II ended in 1945. The town’s 6,000 residents share four tennis courts, a castle and a sports center. One of those courts was occupied every afternoon by Jiri Kvita, Petra’s father and the town’s deputy mayor, who was also a teacher and self made tennis coach to Petra’s two older brothers, Jiri and Libov. Due to a lack of family funds, as well as the stifling communist regime, tennis travel was difficult, so the careers of her brothers were stunted. By the time Petra came along, however, things were different.

“I am a lucky person that I was born in 1990,”says Kvitova, who first picked up a racquet at age four and was soon practicing every day with her father, a strict disciplinarian who preferred to see his daughter engaged in athletic pursuits rather than trolling the town.

By the time Petra was 16, however, the father-coach relationship had become strained. To preserve family harmony and prepare for a pro career, Petra relocated to a state-of-the art training center in Prostejov founded by Czech businessman Miroslav Cernosek (who is married to former WTA touring pro Petra Langrova). There, in 2008, Kvitova began working with David Kotyza, an outgoing and reassuring coach who has now been with her for more than eight years.

“Cernosek is single-handedly responsible for bringing top tennis back to the country,” says Lendl, referring to the club that is also the current training ground for Kvitova’s Fed Cup teammate Lucie Safarova, as well as for Top-10 player Tomas Berdych. “He knows how to raise money and then spends it on the juniors. He has created really good conditions for young players to train.”

So far, Kvitova is the country’s top export. She was ranked No. 2 at the end of 2011 (behind Wozniacki). That same year she stunned fourth-seeded Azarenka and fifth-seeded Sharapova to win Wimbledon and was named WTA Player of the Year. At the start of 2012, she was just one win shy of ascending to No. 1, but a loss to Li Na in the semifinals of Sydney stopped her. She then lost in the semifinals of the Australian Open to Sharapova despite being up a break in the third set.

What Kvitova is faulted for are her occasional mental lapses and erratic results. In 2010, after a first-round loss at the French Open to 142nd-ranked qualifier Sophie Ferguson, she and Kotyza decided to hire sports psychologist Michal Safar. She has worked with Safar ever since.

“He tries to make me more calm on the court,” says Kvitova. “We do breathing techniques so that I can be more focused and just be more relaxed. Everything in this game is connected, both the physical and the mental, so you need to be your best at both.”

Kvitova’s up-and-down results confound her tour mates and predecessors. After winning Wimbledon last July, she dropped two of her next three matches. Then, after winning a US Open warm-up event in New Haven, she was stunned by Krunic in New York. In the fall, she won 12 of her last 15 matches, including a title in Wuhan, and finishing runner-up to Sharapova in Beijing. Then she stumbled at the year-end championships, failing to reach the semifinals.

“She’s a very unique player, very talented and special, but very unpredictable,” says Hall of Famer and 1998 Wimbledon champ Novotna. “She’s had some bad losses and, as good as she is, she has no Plan B for when Plan A is not working. There’s just no way that, after winning Wimbledon, you should lose in the first round of your next tournaments.”

“I think it’s amazing that she can play two bad matches and then win Wimbledon,” counters her friend and Fed Cup teammate Andrea Hlavackova. “She’s very calm and doesn’t let things get to her. That is her real strength.”

Those strengths, and Kvitova’s unpredictability, have both continued early in 2015. After winning a tournament in Sydney in January, where she defeated Karolina Pliskova in the final, Kvitova was ousted in the third round of the Australian Open by then-35th-ranked Madison Keys. She then fell in the round of 16 in Dubai and in the quarterfinals in Doha, both times to Carla Suarez Navarro. Shortly thereafter she withdrew from both Indian Wells and Miami, citing exhaustion, but returned in time for the Czech Republic’s April Fed Cup tie against France. There, she won two singles matches as her country returned to the final.

Last November, Kvitova sat courtside inside Prague’s 14,000-seat O2 arena watching Safarova dismantle Kerber in the second singles match of the Fed Cup final. Her serene expression hid the excitement that danced inside her. She knew that with a win over Kerber the next day, she could ensure victory for her country, and add another piece of hardware to her increasingly crowded mantle.

With horns blowing and fans wildly waving red and blue flags, Kvitova fought back from a 5–2 deficit in the first set against Kerber, saw a 3–0 lead in the second set vanish and then won six of the last seven games of the match, capturing the Cup on her fourth match point. Kvitova thrust her arms into the air and then dove into the arms of her jubilant teammates. It was the kind of inner fortitude doubters are still waiting to see from Kvitova outside of Wimbledon—and perhaps a sign of things to come.

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