Tuesday, March 5, 2013
Kvitova showcases problem-solving skills
By Richard Pagliaro
Petra Kvitova made the Dubai hard court look like a sand box. Kvitova's deep blasts displaced opponents who looked like they were spinning their wheels on sand in a futile effort to gain ground on the 2011 Wimbledon champion.
Kvitova shook off a second-round Australian Open loss by leveling the field. She sandwiched sweeps of former No. 1s Ana Ivanovic and Caroline Wozniacki around a quarterfinal thumping of fourth-ranked Agnieszka Radwanska before defeating French Open finalist Sara Errani, 6-2, 1-6, 6-1, to take the title.
Changing direction of her flat drives brilliantly, the 6-foot Czech's all-court attack made even clever counter-punchers feel as though they were operating at the wrong end of a shooting gallery.
"It was just two short balls and it's over," said Radwanska, who fell to 1-4 lifetime against Kvitova. "It's a bomb coming from the other side."
The left-hander's ability to detonate points with a single swing disarms opponents, denying them the rhythm that comes from playing longer rallies while presenting a fundamental problem. How do you solve an opponent who refuses to let you rally?
"The problem is not that she's tall; the problem is that she serves very good. She hits so strong," Errani said. "It's tough to move her. It's hard to play because her ball is very flat. I don't have time to do the points that I want to do, to play the game that I want to play. All the points are very short, and it's very tough."
The powerful performance served as a reminder that Kvitova, who was two wins away from the No. 1 ranking at the 2012 Australian Open before stumbling through a trying season plagued by inconsistency and illness, can be a force at the top of the game when she's right.
Kvitova's course to her 10th career title and first since she won New Haven last August was considerably smoother given the world's top three players -- Serena Williams, Victoria Azarenka and Maria Sharapova -- did not play Dubai. And though this is a significant step, she's still facing a desert-sized gap to regain a spot in the top three.
The world No. 7 trails the top-ranked Williams by more than 5,000 ranking points; she is not nearly as quick around the court and doesn't deploy the array of spins Serena can, particularly on serve. She's not as consistent as Azarenka, whom she has not faced since the 2011 WTA Championships final, and she doesn't evoke the fierce ruthlessness of Sharapova on a point-to-point basis. That explains Kvitova's combined 6-10 career record versus the world's top three, including an 0-4 mark against world No. 1 Serena and a 2-4 record against third-ranked Sharapova.
Yet those stats don't detract from the fact her upside is immense. Kvitova, who celebrates her 23rd birthday on March 8, is the second-youngest player in the top 10. She can dictate on serve, dominate on return and owns the most complete game of any woman not named Serena. She is an all-surface threat who has won titles on hard court, grass and clay and has reached at least the semifinals of every major except the U.S. Open.
When she's on her game, Kvitova is a brilliant ball-striker, whose shots are as tough to read as an SOS message scrawled across the surface of a lake.
"Petra played unbelievable; I think she was just hitting shots I had no chance to get," said Serena after roaring back from a 4-1 third-set deficit to defeat Kvitova in Doha earlier this month. "I don't think anyone on this tour could have gotten them."
Though she was prone to periods of erratic tennis last season, Kvitova is much more than a mindless baseline-blaster. Her frontcourt finesse makes her backcourt power even more menacing. When opponents drop back behind the baseline and defend in an effort to coax errors, as Wozniacki did in Dubai, Kvitova is comfortable closing at net. She won 15 of 17 trips to net versus Wozniacki, unleashing drive, drop and angled volleys to create closure.
She must still sharpen her shot selection. When the 5-foot-4 Errani rushed the net with regularity in the second set of the final, Kvitova opted to try to drill flat passes by her rather than playing high-percentage lobs over the diminutive Italian's head. And sometimes it looked like Kvitova was oblivious to the situation when she sails returns beyond the baseline. But the fact Kvitova captured the title while her longtime coach, David Kotyza, was on vacation, should give her confidence in her problem-solving skills.
A year ago, Kvitova often looked like she was battling two adversaries during singles play: Her opponent and her asthma, which is exacerbated playing in heat. She looks fitter and fresher now, has won nine of her past 10 matches, and if she can sustain her health and current level of play, look for Kvitova to gain ground at Premier events in Indian Wells and Miami, where she won just one match last season.