|ESPN.com: News & Opinion||[Print without images]|
Wimbledon champion Petra Kvitova, who has struggled on the hard-court circuit since her All-England Club triumph, crashed out of the U.S. Open in the first round Monday afternoon. The fifth-seeded Czech fell to Romania's Alexandra Dulgheru, 7-6 (3), 6-3, at Louis Armstrong Stadium.
The early loss is the latest disappointment in what has been a decidedly pedestrian summer for Kvitova. Since becoming the youngest Wimbledon winner in seven years, the 21-year-old has posted a match record of just 2-3.
"I know that I'm still young and this is something new for me," Kvitova said Monday after the loss. "I need more experiences for sure."
Kvitova rolled into the Big Apple as both a title threat and a question mark. The hard-hitting Czech possesses the big game required to go deep at the U.S. Open. But players rarely follow up their maiden major with immediate Slam hardware.
"It's not easy, that's for sure, especially after your first one, definitely," said Maria Sharapova, who captured Wimbledon, her first major, at age 17 in 2004.
"When I won Wimbledon I felt a sort of pressure, of course," Kvitova echoed on Monday. "Yeah, maybe it's a little bit of this."
Kvitova also has been hampered by a case of asthma that flares up in humid weather and an adductor injury sustained while running the table at Wimbledon, where she beat top-five players Victoria Azarenka and Sharapova, respectively, in the semifinals and final.
But on Monday she refused to blame her body for her struggles.
"Everything [is in] the head," Kvitova said. "If you are thinking on the court negatively, it's bad."
It's not unusual for players to struggle with the added attention and expectations that follow breakout performances. And Kvitova is not a well-oiled, academy-produced finished product. She hails from a small Czech town of 6,000 residents, and grew up idolizing Martina Navratilova. Her village, Bilovec, has just four tennis courts. She was coached by her non-tennis-playing father and didn't take up the sport in earnest until her early teens.
After relocating at age 16 to the famous Prostejov tennis club, where other top players such as Tomas Berdych and Lucie Safarova honed their games, Kvitova progressed quickly. But nothing prepared her for her post-Wimbledon fame.
Shy by nature, Kvitova says she would prefer to go unnoticed but understands klieg lights are trained on newly minted tennis champions.
"I don't like it too much, the attention," Kvitova said in Cincinnati earlier this month. But she doesn't mind the responsibility.
"It's important for … WTA and for the tournaments," she added. "I don't care."
Kvitova did not celebrate much after Wimbledon, spending time with family and friends and recovering from a leg injury that required painkillers during the London fortnight.
She insists the victory didn't change her.
"Me as a person? I don't feel anything," Kvitova said. "I know the people recognize me more; they want more autographs, photos and more media. As [for] me, I'm still the same."
David Kotyza, her coach of three years, expects a period of adjustment.
"I think she has potential to be on the top," he said recently. "But this potential [exists in] more girls. We will see. It depends. If she stays healthy and both feet on the ground, everything is possible."
Navratilova, who sees a great future for her fellow southpaw, likewise speaks in measured terms.
"I don't want to anoint anybody here," the nine-time Wimbledon singles champion told reporters at Wimbledon. "That would be putting a lot of pressure on somebody. I don't want to take attention away from the players coming through."
Devoted fans aren't letting Kvitova lie low, however. To wit: a video montage of her 222 winners at Wimbledon that has already received more than 43,000 views on YouTube.
One pressure Kvitova hasn't faced is being seen as an unworthy elite.
Unlike Caroline Wozniacki, Jelena Jankovic and Dinara Safina, Kvitova has not shouldered the burden of reaching No. 1 without winning a major. Indeed, Kvitova -- who reached a career-high No. 6 earlier this month and is currently ranked No. 7 -- has yet to crack the top five.
"It seems like she hits the ball harder than anyone I've ever seen," said U.S. Fed Cup captain and ESPN commentator Mary Joe Fernandez last month. "Playing that high-risk that consistently is remarkable."
Seeded fifth at the Open because of Kim Clijsters' absence, Kvitova has won four titles in five finals this season. But while her penetrating shots can send opponents reeling backward, she can also go off her game, as happened on Monday against the 49th-ranked Dulgheru, when Kvitova's wicked slicing serve and percussive groundstrokes failed her.
Was she burdened by the pressure that the "Wimbledon champion" mantle carries?
"It's something new for me," she said, ruefully, after the match. "I have to fight with this."
See more from tennis writer Douglas Robson at douglasrobson.com.