French Open preview: Petra Kvitova more than a sentimental favorite

French Open preview: Petra Kvitova more than a sentimental favorite

More than two years after a life-changing incident, Petra Kvitova is ready for Grand Slam success in her 'second career'.

Petra Kvitova is no longer haunted by the queasy feeling she sometimes experienced when picking up a racquet with her surgically repaired left hand. She doesn’t scan public places any more, anxiously looking for strangers. She’s gotten over her fear of being alone, something she felt even in the safe confines of a tournament locker room.

The memory of the man who invaded Kvitova’s home and severely injured her left, hitting hand in December 2016 will never go away.

“I’ve been through many, many things, not really great ones,” the 28-year-old Czech said at this year’s Australian Open, during her runner-up press conference.

Kvitova repeated the words of gratitude she had told her team inside Rod Laver Arena, following a narrow defeat to Naomi Osaka, as she basked in the admiration of a supportive crowd. Her team’s faith and confidence in her, she said, were invaluable.

“I didn’t know if I going to hold the racquet again,” Kvitova said. “But I’m holding it now. Thank you.”

Thus, one chapter in the unexpectedly dramatic life of Petra Kvitova quietly closed on that sultry evening: a tale of powers stolen and now regained. Having done no better than two Grand Slam quarterfinals since winning her second Wimbledon title in 2014, Kvitova appears to be a force at the majors once again.

It wasn’t just that Kvitova reached the Australian Open final, it was how she did it. She won a tune-up title in Sydney, posting straight-set wins over Aryna Sabalenka and Angelique Kerber along the way, and didn’t drop a set in Melbourne until her encounter with Osaka. A few weeks later, Kvitova reached her third final in her first five tournaments of 2019, at the talent-laden Dubai event.

Ranked No. 29 at the start of 2018, the former No. 2 was up to No. 3 again by the end of February. 

“It’s kind of weird, to be honest,” Kvitova said of her hot start, “Because I didn’t know even if I’m gonna play tennis again.”

As the aforementioned chapter ended with Kvitova’s return to the top of the sport, another chapter advanced toward conclusion with the long-awaited identification, arrest and trial of her assailant. The chapters that remain have to do with challenges many players are familiar with, albeit not on Kvitova’s grand scale.

Kvitova is a prodigious talent, a bedeviling southpaw who has won two Grand Slam tournaments, a WTA year-end championship and 27 tour-level titles–most recently on the red clay in Stuttgart just over three weeks ago. She has a swerving, shutdown serve and a shotmaker’s yen for cracking winners.

“Petra is absolutely capable of taking a match away from someone,” the clever counterpuncher Ashleigh Barty said after losing to Kvitova in January. “At times it’s very much out of my control, what she does from her end of the court.”

Yet a graph of Kvitova’s career is noteworthy for its valleys as well as its peaks. She’s been a win away from the No. 1 ranking, but never achieved it. She’s looked unbeatable at majors, only to lose the plot and take a baffling loss. Between her second title at Wimbledon in 2014 and the 2016 US Open, Kvitova reached the quarterfinals at a Slam just once in nine tries. Her career-redefining run Down Under improved her record in Grand Slam quarterfinals to a middling 6–5.

The reason: a still-unresolved, career-long battle with nerves.

“The nerves were there again,” Kvitova acknowledged at Wimbledon last July, after losing in the first round to 50th-ranked Aliaksandra Sasnovich. “I just tried to fight with myself. I was probably the biggest opponent.”

Kvitova is often asked how the Czech Republic manages to produce so many terrific tennis players, including Hall of Famers Ivan Lendl, Martina Navratilova and Jana Novotna. Her reply has become a stock one: “Maybe something in the water or in the air.”

Or maybe something in the parents. Kvitova was introduced to the game by her father Jiri Kvita, a schoolteacher and, as a coach, a stern taskmaster. She had a fine if not dazzling junior career that peaked with an ITF junior ranking of No. 27. It didn’t take long for her to capitalize on her built-in lefty advantage, flat groundstrokes and the power she’s capable of generating with her 6-foot height and long limbs. Her turf-ready game earned her the Wimbledon junior title in 2007.

As a pro, Kvitova popped onto the scene in a big way at 19, when she bounced world No. 1 Dinara Safina out of the 2009 US Open. The following year, she made the semifinals at Wimbledon, and then won it all in 2011.

Beaten at her own power game in that Wimbledon final, 6–3, 6–4, Maria Sharapova admitted that Kvitova simply “hit deeper and harder,” adding, “she has a tremendous amount of potential to go even further and achieve many great things.”

But Kvitova wasn’t fully prepared for the pressure and stress created by her sudden fame. Friendly but shy, she found it difficult to adjust to the limelight. She felt pressure from the outside, and piled massive expectations upon herself.

“You’re thinking you have to win every single match because you won a Grand Slam,” Kvitova put it recently about her early-career success.

Kvitova adjusted to life near the top, but kinks remained in her game and temperament. A streaky player by nature, Kvitova has been subject to dramatic mood swings that have her cracking bold winners for a period, then spraying balls all over the court in other intervals. In big matches, her nerves often betrayed her.

At its best, Kvitova’s hot-and-cold game has carried her as close as you can get to tennis’ summit without reaching it. In the semifinals of the 2012 Australian Open, a win over Sharapova would have given Kvitova the No. 1 ranking. She led by a break

in the third set, but Sharapova prevailed. The No. 1 ranking also was up for grabs in this year’s Australian Open final. Kvitova held the momentum after winning the second set, but it was Osaka who took both prizes.

The mind is like 80 percent of the game,” Kvitova said after her 7–6 (2), 5–7, 6–4 loss to the unflappable Osaka. “You really have to believe in yourself. Sometimes everyone has those troubles to do that. I think that’s human. I’m not [an] exception.”

The French Open warms to players who accept that they are only human. Rafael Nadal is remarkably humble for an 11-time champion. Simona Halep, the 2018 winner, was embraced for the way she admitted to her shortcomings in the previous years’ final. Happy-go-lucky Gustavo Kuerten of Brazil became an icon on the terre battue.

As sentimental favorites go, Kvitova would be near the top of the list.

While faster surfaces are friendliest to Kvitova’s game, nobody would have guessed that Sharapova would win more majors at the French Open than anywhere else, and nobody ever mistook Serena Williams for a clay-court specialist, either. It just may be that a positive, come-what-may attitude, and a willingness to absorb the frustrations that are part of the slower clay game, are the real keys to flourishing in Paris.

If so, Kvitova may be on her way. In 2017, she chose to launch her comeback from her injury at Roland Garros, rather than on comfortable grass a few weeks later. The French crowd took to Kvitova like a beloved compatriot. After winning her first match in straight sets, she said “it was a really heartwarming welcome the court... a pleasure to play in front of that crowd.”

Warm feelings aside, Kvitova has taken great strides in her clay game. Last year, she logged a 13-match win streak on the surface, including a title at the Madrid Open. In the lead-up to Roland Garros, Kvitova felt “sad” that the clay season was coming to a close.

It came to an earlier close than expected, with Kvitova taking a third-round loss to Anett Kontaveit in Paris. That may have had less to do with clay than with Kvitova’s well-documented nerves, as she struggled once again with the demands of Grand Slam competition and pressure.

“When I was younger, I played better on the Grand Slams than the other tournaments,” Kvitova said after losing her first-round match at Wimbledon last July. “Now I’m playing better on the other tournaments than the Grand Slams. So I make a promise that I’m going to be very patient and I’m going to try to break [through] again for the other side.”

After losing in the third round of her next major, the US Open, she made good on that promise, reaching the final at the Australian Open. Now, instead of apologizing for her anxiety-induced breakdowns, Kvitova is plotting a new career. It sometimes works that way when a player takes a long break, even an unplanned one.

“I’m calling it my second career,” Kvitova said upon reaching the final four in Melbourne. “So it’s the first semifinal of my second career... I’m happy this time it’s different.”

The WTA landscape is rich with opportunity for both mature and young players. It’s an ideal environment for those hoping to break through in a big way, as Kvitova did at Wimbledon in 2011, or for experienced pros seeking to redress shortcomings, take advantage of newfound dedication or maturity, or to make the most of second chances—like Kvitova now.

The events that have provided Kvitova with the chance to view the coming months and years as a second career were appalling. But if her new, deeper appreciation of the game ena-bles her to relax a little more and to build on her recent success, she may add more chapters of Grand Slam glory to her remarkable autobiography.