Monday, October 31, 2011

Great Under A Roof, With No Ceiling

Take a quick peek at Petra Kvitova's bio on the WTA website and you will find that her favorite city to visit is Melbourne. When I read that I couldn't help thinking that Kvitova might like Melbourne even more if she takes over the No. 1 ranking and wins her second Slam there early next year.

I'm getting ahead of myself, naturally, but after observing the year that the 21-year-old has had, it's very hard not to. Now that the dust has settled, the facts are crystal clear: Kvitova's rise from outside the top 30 to No. 2 in the world may indeed be just the first in a many-step ascension that takes her to the throne of women's tennis and leaves her there to fight off potential usurpers for years to come.

One of those potential usurpers might be Victoria Azarenka. Azarenka came up short against Kvitova in the final on Sunday, but the fact that she was able to push Kvitova after being down 5-0 in the first set says a lot about the development of her mental game. For much of this match, Azarenka was the calmer, cooler player, and while she lacks the big-time serve and laser-guided ground strokes of Kvitova, she's a player who is coming into her own in sure and steady fashion -- look no further than her year-end ranking for proof.

But the story of 2012 in women's tennis was the rise of Kvitova. There's so much talk of depth on the women's tour, and that depth was on display in Istanbul to be sure, but in the end, and for the first time in a while, we got a glimpse of dominance from a young player. Unlike Wozniacki, Azarenka, and a lot of other players at the moment who tend to follow each inspiring triumph with an equally uninspiring setback, Kvitova is a player who appears to be cut from a different cloth.

It starts with the serve. There are so many great ball strikers in the WTA top 50, but how many great servers are there? Not even Sam Stosur, with her awesome kick serve, can generate the free points that Kvitova gets from her serve. It's a true luxury, and that wide swooping serve that wreaks havoc on right-hander's backhands is one of the main reasons that Kvitova can win so regularly-- even on days when she's playing not so great.

Time and time again we hear rising tennis players talk of the need to be able to win when they are not playing their best tennis. It is the true test of a top player, and it has been the downfall of many of the WTA's up and comers of late. But not Kvitova. Sure, she can still be maddeningly inconsistent and uninspired (see US Open) at times, but with her strong serving and ability to dictate play with power and precision from the baseline, the Czech has created a buffer against inconsistency. She was less than inspiring, almost in tears actually, for more than half of the final against Victoria Azarenka -- really -- and she was still able to find a way to win. If that isn't a positive sign going forward, then I don't know what is.

At the beginning of 2011, I can remember reading tweets from journalists who thought Petra Kvitova could very well be the next breakout WTA player. I can remember tweeting back that I didn't see it.

'She's not fit enough, she's too hit and miss with her shots, she has no plan B...'

Boy was I wrong. Now that she's one good tournament from ending Caroline Wozniacki's year-long run as the WTA's No. 1, it's easy to see that Kvitova could be the next true tour de force in women's tennis. Of course she'll need to want it. She'll need to feel inside herself that 2011 was just one small step in a larger, more forceful pattern of winning. She'll need to keep developing her mental game and her fitness. She'll need to stay healthy and manage her schedule. She'll need to become -- gasp -- more consistent.

It's still a question mark, and yes, it's still a big one. But her performance in 2011 proves that when it comes to Kvitova, there clearly is no limit to how high she can climb.

As boring as dominance tends to be when it actually occurs, there are a lot of fans and pundits out there rooting for Kvitova to succeed, because a dominating force would force the rest of the WTA Tour to respond in kind -- or be crushed on a regular basis. When there is fire, you must fight fire with fire. When there is no fire, you get a lot of depth and a very low ceiling.

When Kvitova raised the roof in Istanbul this weekend, the ceiling of the whole WTA might have gotten a bit higher too.

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