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Monday, October 31, 2011
Petra Kvitova never ran from a challenge


Although there's still one event left on the WTA calendar (the Bali Tournament of Also Rans, er, "Champions"), the top women are done for the year now that the WTA Tour Championships is over.

The women's tennis pros mustered a rousing ending. The event in Istanbul, propped up by low ticket prices and government support, was very well attended, and the crowd was astute, even though it had to be admonished in Turkish, "Thank you for not smoking."

That request did not apply to Petra Kvitova, who established herself as the woman to beat in 2012 by smoking Victoria Azarenka in a quality final, 7-5, 4-6, 6-3. Forget world No. 1 Caroline Wozniacki. On two occasions this year, Kvitova did what Wozniacki could not accomplish even once, despite holding the top ranking: She answered the call of greatness.

Kvitova, the 21-year-old from the Czech Republic, started the year outside the WTA top 30, yet she won two of the five biggest prizes on offer, including the granddaddy of them all, Wimbledon. In that final, the self-conscious 6-foot blonde toppled former Wimbledon champ Maria Sharapova -- the same woman whom she will now replace as the No. 2 player in the world.

At the WTA Championships, Kvitova accomplished something only the best of players pull off. She dealt with the pressure that is evenly distributed among the contenders when a tournament is truly up for grabs. She may not have wanted it more than her rivals, but she marshaled her talents and resources more impressively and seized the moment. Don't for a moment think that's not a big deal.

Another striking thing about Kvitova's week was the way she was able to weather those bad patches in which a tall and somewhat gangly young player with an aggressive, attacking style is prone. As bad as things sometimes were, Kvitova never lost her cool. She never ran from the challenge. She remained patient and even-tempered, even though at times things were worse than merely bad; they were awful.

Kvitova trailed Agnieszka Radwanska, undeniably the hottest WTA player going into the championships, 5-1 in the first set. Yet after Kvitova fought her way back and won, Radwaska admitted: "Even when I was up 5-1, I didn't feel close to winning the set. She started to play unbelievable. She was hitting the ball very hard."

And in the semis, Kvitova had a comfortable 4-2 lead over veteran (and U.S. Open champion) Samantha Stosur only to hit the skids. Kvitova ended up losing the first set 7-5 and was one swing of the racket from being down a break at 2-0 in the second. But Kvitova held, broke Stosur in the next game, and was never in danger again.

The message: Kvitova has a big game (something we already knew). But she has an equally big temperament (something we did not). With so much power, so many moving parts, and so big a body, the whole kit and caboodle is apt to fall apart now and then. The ability to survive the lapses with no loss of composure or confidence is a great talent.

And most encouraging of all, Kvitova's strong finish blew apart the theory circulating in some quarters that her win at Wimbledon was just a fluke. True, Kvitova played some terrible tennis after making her big statement in London, but her finish (incidentally, she was undefeated indoors for the year, at 19-0) suggests that she was just distracted temporarily by the shock of what she'd accomplished.

Winning the tournament in her first appearance among the elite eight puts Kvitova in excellent company -- Sharapova did it in 2004 and Serena Williams in 2001. Both women went on to become multiple Grand Slam event champions.

By virtue of the win, Kvitova rose to No. 2 in the world -- just a few hundred points behind Wozniacki. Both women won six titles this year, but whose record would you rather have? Uneasy lies the head that wears the crown.