This was the breakthrough of a new generation and the breakdown of a champion. Those things worked together, as Petra Kvitova won Wimbledon Saturday, beating Maria Sharapova 6-3, 6-4. Every major in women’s tennis lately seems to produce a heart-warming story of some emerging 29-year old, or the dominance of someone coming back from retirement/maternity leave. Kvitova becomes the first player born in the 1990s to win a major.
“I like the big, big challenges like this one,’’ Kvitova said in an interview with NBC as she left the court. “I like the final and the big crowd and big matches. It’s, uh, I don’t’ know, I just played my best tennis and I won.’’
“I was nervous before the match. When I came on the court, it was OK.’’
And that described the match perfectly. Kvitova was impressively calm. Sharapova, the experienced one, was a mess.
So much of women’s tennis is about nerve, and which player has more. There is such little variety in the way the women play, that instead of matching up a heavy topspin forehand to someone’s one-handed backhand, or crushing flat shots to someone’s slow, looping strokes, women’s tennis, in general, seems to be about which one bashes best.
The surprising thing, the welcoming thing for a generation, was that a 21-year old who had never been here before, could be so focused. Sharapova, is just 24, but she won Wimbledon seven years ago. Her experience was supposed to be the advantage.
Instead, her serve killed her. Just killed her. It was telling enough that she won the coin toss and chose to let Kvitova serve. But at 2-3 in the first set, 30-all, Sharapova double-faulted. Then, ad-out, she double-faulted again.
That was the set, though Sharapova also double-faulted the first point of her next service game to make three in a row. For the most part, Sharapova did manage to get her second serve in, but they were nervous serves, weak serves. So afraid of missing, she was floating them in. It was as if she were putting the ball on a tee for Kvitova, who would step in and clobber returns.
It’s hard to know what this will mean to Sharapova. When she crushed Serena Williams to win as a 17-year old, everyone thought she would win a bunch of Wimbledons. This was her first time back in the final. She won two more majors, but had shoulder surgery in 2009 and hasn’t been the same since. The shoulder seems to work fine, but she has lost her serve. She has the yips.
Even her serve to be coming back over the past several weeks, but she double-faulted away the semis of the French Open. Now this. Under the biggest pressure, her serve disappeared again, just when one of tennis’ biggest names was finishing a comeback in her career.
“I don’t really see this as a fairy tale even if I would have won it,’’ she said. “It’s a lot of hard work.’’
That has been the great thing about Sharapova, her fight, her relentlessness. But without nerve, she doesn’t offer much. She swings as hard as possible on every shot, and the ball goes in because of her belief.
Kvitova made her pay for her weakness, which only put more and more pressure on Sharapova’s other shots. Kvitova was knocking her backward. She was stronger physically and mentally.
She’s likely to win a lot more majors because she knows how to keep the ball in play, deep, until the right opportunity comes to blast something. But she is prone to long stretches of misses, too.
That’s what Caroline Wozniacki, former leader of Generation Next, is going to rely on. At 20, Wozniacki still will hold the No. 1 ranking, even though she hasn’t won a major. She’s not the best player in the world, and now, not even in her generation. She plays too passively, waiting for an opponent to choke. Kvitova might not provide that for her.
Meanwhile, Victoria Azarenka has been expected to emerge, but she never quite arrives. Sharapova has time to remember how to serve. And in the late 20s group, Serena Williams can still lead if she stays committed and healthy. Kim Clijsters can still win, but looks like she’s ready to retire again. Li Na will contend a little while longer.
We’ll have to see how Kvitova handles success, and whether she can stay consistent for long stretches. But it was so refreshing to see someone play with nerve.
Kvitova has a long run ahead of her. And we finally have something to look forward to.