For a multitude of reasons, this year's French Open women's tournament is one of the most wide open in years. Throughout this week, the editors of TENNIS.com will write each about three possible contenders—un, deux, trois—for the Coupe Suzanne Lenglen.
Kvitova earned her third title of 2011 at the high-profile Madrid tournament. (AP Photo)Un:* Petra Kvitova
**Nobody does “volatile” in tennis better than Czech women, which alone ought to make the other French Open title contenders afraid of Kvitova. Very afraid.
The history of Czech women’s tennis is both glorious and tempestuous. Presently, the Czechs lead all nations with nine players in the Top 100, and more are on the way. Kvitova, the recent champ at the Madrid Premier Mandatory event (read: next best thing to a Grand Slam tournament), became the sixth Czech woman to crack the elite Top 10 since the computer rankings were launched in 1975. The parade was led by Martina Navratilova and followed by Hana Mandlikova, Helena Sukova, Jana Novotna and, most recently, Nicole Vaidisova.
A tall (6’) lefty, Kvitova brings to the table a big, bold, power-based game that reminds us of Navratilova in her heyday, although Kvitova is a considerably larger and potentially stronger specimen (although it would be hard to top Navratilova in the strength department, on a pound-for-pound basis). But the most significant similarity between Kvitova and the countrywoman she grew up idolizing is their shared penchant for attacking tennis.
Kvitova strikes an enormous, new blow for the idea that even though women don’t have the explosive strength and shotmaking power of their male counterparts, they can play any style of tennis with comparable proficiency and rewards. In fact, Kvitova may be the best (she’s certainly become the most successful) proponent of what used to be categorized as the “serve-and-volley” game, although these days that designation is misleading as well as anachronistic, except on select occasions.
The serve-and-volley game lives on furtively, and mostly in what is more accurately described as “the volley game.” Call it the willingness or even the desire to attack the net and end points with the volley. While Kvitova is unafraid to play old-school, serve-and-volley tennis on fast surfaces, even on red clay she’s interested in pressuring her opponent and following up powerful, penetrating groundstrokes with forays to the net. That she was able to pursue that style in Madrid and survive Victoria Azarenka—a true aggressive baseliner and at the time one of the hottest players on the WTA—in the championship match tells you Kvitova, who recently turned 21, is mature and capable of winning a major. And let’s remember, she was a Wimbledon semifinalist last year.
Kvitova’s game is mercurial, and her results are no less volatile. It’s a truism that in tennis, you rarely get the whole package; the price Kvitova pays for her ball-striking ability and the temptations it engenders is inconsistency. This, too, is part of her heritage—you couldn’t invent a pair more erratic, and talented, than Mandlikova and Novotna.
Kvitova’s record is strewn with first round-failures, sometimes serial ones (this year, she lost her first match in three straight events: Dubai, Indian Wells and Nassau—the latter a mere ITF event). At the same time, Kvitova’s recent consistency, once she gets a foothold in a tournament, is striking. She started the year with a win over up-and-coming Andrea Petkovic for the Brisbane title, then reached the quarters in Melbourne before No. 2 seed Vera Zvonareva ended her run. Kvitova went on to beat Kim Clijsters for the Paris (indoors) title, but immediately went on the aforementioned three-event skid.
Here’s something else about Kvitova: She’s not too proud to play down, or remember who helped propel her to the top, as she demonstrated by entering the Nassau ITF event the week before Miami, and more recently by choosing the Prague ITF event over the just-completed Italian Open. Kvitova played the minor-league tournament despite her No. 9 ranking because she wanted to express her gratitude to some of the people who helped shape and advance her career, and to honor a commitment made long ago.
That was a classy, gracious decision by Kvitova, even though she ended up losing the final to Magdalena Rybarikova. I get the feeling that it was one of the more easily digested losses of Kvitova’s career, and that her next one, should it come in Paris, would be a considerably more bitter pill to swallow, even if it occurs in the final. This is a young lady who appears ready to take her game to the ultimate level.
Jankovic has reached the semis of Roland Garros in three of the last four years. (AP Photo)Deux:* Jelena Jankovic
**Jankovic is up against it. The reigning queen of the “fiddling while Rome burns” school of career management, she’s on the verge of dropping out of the Top 10 (she’s clinging to the last rung) and has a ton of points to defend at Roland Garros, where she made the semifinals last year.
Remember that? Remember how, once again, everyone started thinking that maybe, just maybe, this talented, superbly athletic player who finished 2008 as world No. 1 could still get it together and pull herself out of a tailspin—and bag that elusive, validating first major?
It didn’t happen then, and the job is going to be that much tougher this year. Simply put, Jankovic has had a spring more appropriate for a journeywoman than a perennial Top 10 player. Although she made the semifinals at the first clay event of the year (Charleston), she bombed out in the second rounds of Stuttgart and Madrid. She showed signs of life in Rome, where she reached the quarters.
But I can’t bring myself to write off Jankovic as a contender, even though she’s inherited that mantle left by Elena Dementieva: Best player never to win a major.
Trois: Andrea Petkovic
Petkovic not only has loads of personality, she has loads of brains and an awareness of herself and others that probably will tide her through some very tough matches, although a Grand Slam title still seems a bridge too far—at this point.
Peter Bodo is a senior writer for TENNIS.com and is the author of Peter Bodo's TennisWorld.