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Does lefty Kvitova have the right stuff?

7/1/2011

WIMBLEDON, England -- Petra Kvitova is a woman of big serves and few words, so when she was asked the other day what advantage she might hold, stroke-wise, over Maria Sharapova in the Wimbledon final on Saturday, her reply was simple: "Left-handed, I can say."

It was an accurate assessment, because Kvitova is one of those rare players who exploits that right-brain, left-brain thing to the max. She also suffers from a mild affliction shared by left-handers, but we'll get to that later.

I can't remember a women's final that so fully promises to be about the serve, the stroke that has so bedeviled and prevented women pros from improving their rankings or winning titles. For Kvitova has ridden that big, hooking lefty serve to this final, while Sharapova continues to battle the serving yips that beset her when she returned from right-shoulder surgery in 2009.

So the most basic analysis of the final goes like this: If Kvitova serves well and Sharapova suffers some of those familiar serving lapses, the 21-year-old No. 8 seed from the Czech Republic will probably win this, the first Grand Slam final in which she's appeared.

Conversely, if Sharapova's serve holds up, her inherent toughness and broad experience in Grand Slam finals (she's 3-1) could open the floodgates -- especially if Kvitova has trouble handling the pressure or sense of occasion. How will this first-timer approach the occasion? "I don't know," she said. "It will be hard, for sure, so, you know, it's first time for me, so I will be enjoying the match. I will see what it will be in the head during the match."

If Kvitova can avoid succumbing to nerves and Sharapova keeps control of her serve games, the match is likely to be very close, the points a brief and brutal contrast of winners and errors. Both finalists like to hit flat, hard and close to the lines. And the weak wing for both players is the forehand.

Sharapova still has a tendency to arm that forehand and hit it falling away or with an awkward wrench. Kvitova's problem is more intriguing, and it could be her undoing. She's one of the many left-handers (among them, John McEnroe, Martina Navratilova and Goran Ivanisevic) whose backhand is a much more natural and fluid stroke. If Kvitova's technique is going to break down, especially if it's from nerves, it will be on the forehand side. And if that happens, you can bet Sharapova will overwhelm her.

Although she's seeded only No. 6, Sharapova is a former champ (she won here at age 17, in 2004) and has been the bookmaker's favorite from the outset. Given that Kvitova has never been in a major final, the experience edge for Sharapova will be significant and perhaps even decisive. She also knows what lies in store from that left arm of Kvitova. "Being a lefty, I think that's quite dangerous on grass," Sharapova said in her pre-final presser. "She's been using a lot of her strengths."

One curious aspect of this match is that neither finalist has had to climb a big mountain in the preliminaries. The average ranking of the women Sharapova beat on her way to the final was 74.5; for Kvitova, it was 62. The toughest opponent -- I should say the only tough opponent, on paper -- that either of them faced was No. 5 seed Victoria Azarenka, whom Kvitova upset in the semifinals.

Ultimately, that combination of lefty spin and slick grass courts may be too much for Sharapova -- who's not the greatest mover to begin with -- to handle. But if the battle is played out on the battlefield of the mind, you have to like Sharapova to complete her long and often frustrating return to the top.