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When Petra Kvitova believes, watch out

6/3/2012

PARIS -- As the quarterfinals near, Petra Kvitova and -- gasp! -- Rafael Nadal were inadvertently omitted from the earlier conversation about straddling the delicate balance between natural in-match hiccups and sounding the upset alert.

Kvitova will play American Varvara Lepchenko in the quarterfinals and was able to do so by beating Russia's Nina Bratchikova in three odd sets. Odd because Kvitova was extended to three sets and yet never seemed in particular danger of losing. Kvitova is like a heart-attack closer who's won the World Series. Brad Lidge of the Washington Nationals comes to mind. She has the stuff (big left-handed serve, frightening forehand) and the credentials (an utter demolition of Maria Sharapova in last year's Wimbledon final for her first major) and a steadily forming résumé (No. 4 in the world with a high of No. 2 this past February). But because her Wimbledon victory did not send her career into supernova -- turning her into Novak Djokovic in terms of wins and titles, intimidation and projection -- there's just something about Kvitova that suggests each time her serve gets broken, so too may she.

Against Bratchikova, she pounded her way to an easy 6-3 first-set lead only to fly off of the rails in the second, getting broken, losing concentration and being admittedly surprised that Bratchikova increased her intensity and level of play. Down 5-1, Kvitova rallied but still lost the second set 6-4.

Recalibrating, Kvitova won a marathon game to open the third and never looked back, winning 6-1. Kvitova didn't panic and neither did I -- for one reason: Even when she was trailing or tied up, she still controlled the points, even the ones she lost. In a major, danger for women is far more pronounced because of the best two-of-three format.

Scoring a best three-of-five upset is a real accomplishment, but Bratchikova was not doing anything on the court that particularly hurt Kvitova. The Czech escaped her lull and never looked back, which is what favored players are supposed to do. Her trouble wasn't Bratchikova, but her post-Wimbledon year. Because she's susceptible to recovering from lulls, each sign of difficulty can be construed that she's close to losing it.

More than anything else, it is more a question of faith than actual danger. And Kvitova, despite having won a major, hasn't created enough of it just yet.


During the men's tournament in Rome, I was convinced Rafael Nadal would be in real trouble if he played Novak Djokovic again. In Nadal's earlier matches against Tomas Berdych and weeks earlier against David Ferrer at Barcelona (let's just toss Madrid and its blue-clay mess out of the assessment), Nadal was yielding a dangerous amount of break-chance opportunities. The difference between Nadal and the other three best in the world is his serve. Andy Murray, Roger Federer and Djokovic all own superior serves to that of Nadal.

But Nadal fought his way through with his timeless formula of hitting harder and riskier as the points increase in importance. But it is not good policy to make a living having to come back from 15-40 in every service game. Nadal could get away with dancing around that third rail with lesser competition, but against Djokovic, he was likely to get zapped.

And herein lies the difference between a player having an off 15 minutes in a match and a legitimate red flag: Nadal's play was creating a pattern for a high-enough level concern that could land him a loss, just as his patterns against Djokovic at last year's Wimbledon and U.S. Open finals cost him titles. His serve wasn't big enough. His backhand wasn't deep enough, and he lost.

In Rome against Djokovic, Nadal cleaned up the concern by serving wider in the deuce court and varying his serves in the ad -- and he has been cranking ever since. He hasn't dropped a set since being stunned by Fernando Verdasco on the horrid blue clay, a streak of 18 straight sets.