You might think a match between Petra Kvitova and Caroline Wozniacki would be a straightforward affair. Offense vs. defense, power vs. speed, dogged consistency vs. roller-coaster inconsistency: the Czech and the Dane offer one of the sport’s purest contrasts in style.
You might also think that the result of any match between them would rest entirely on Kvitova’s racquet. She’s the one who hits the big shots and takes the big risks, after all. The last four times she had played Wozniacki, Kvitova's shots went in; the last four times they played, she won.
Yet by the time Wozniacki had ended that losing streak with a 7-5, 3-6, 6-2 victory over Kvitova in Singapore on Tuesday, neither of the assumptions I just made in the last two paragraphs seemed to be true anymore. This choppy, sometimes scratchy, sometimes riveting, never predictable match, which took two hours and 16 minutes, was anything but straightforward.
Yes, Kvitova hit far more winners and made far more errors—40 each, to be exact. And yes, Kvitova lived up to her P3tra nickname with her up-and-down play over the course of three sets. But at crucial times, Wozniacki found a way to win with offense as well as defense. And the difference in the match came down to the a shot that you don’t always associate with either of these players: the return of serve.
In the first set, Wozniacki used excellent depth on her return to open up a 5-3 lead. Kvitova scrambled back to 5-5, and reached break point; she was leaning into her shots and belting them for easy winners into the corners. But at break point, she couldn’t get a relatively simple backhand return over the net. It was the beginning of a pattern. Time and again, Kvitova missed easy returns at crucial moments; it was a big reason she converted just five of 13 break points.
This miss was especially costly. It allowed Wozniacki to stem the tide and hold for 6-5. Wozniacki then opened the following game with a return of serve winner, jumped out to a 0-40 lead, and broke for the set. It was a two-game swing that may have won Wozniacki the match. Instead of letting herself get run over by the Kvitova freight train, she had turned the match into a war of attrition.
That type of contest will always favor the ever-steady Wozniacki, and work against the feast-or-famine Kvitova. While Kvitova found her groove again long enough to win the second set, she couldn’t keep it going in the third; Wozniacki, naturally, was ready and waiting to take advantage of her letdown.
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The match’s second crucial passage came in the opening game of the third set. Kvitova had broken to win the second, but rather than show any signs of frustration, Wozniacki came out looking determined to break to start the third. She did it by suddenly stepping forward, taking the initiative, and forcing Kvitova to defend. When Wozniacki broke with a backhand winner after a long point, Kvitova was left doubled-over in exhaustion, and the match had completely turned around again. Kvitova would manage just one more game.
“I played much better today,” said Wozniacki, who lost her opening match to Karolina Pliskova. “I returned really well, served pretty well, moved well.”
Wozniacki understood coming in that a match with Kvitova can go in any direction. Knowing that, it seems, allowed her to stay calm when the tide turned against her in the second set.
“Against Petra, a player who’s so powerful, you have to stay on your game,” Wozniacki said. “You never know what’s going to happen, so I just tried to stay focused.”
While the match wasn’t straightforward, the result felt like it put the WTA Finals back on track. Wozniacki’s title defense in Singapore has officially begun.
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