“Sweet and weird.”
That’s how Petra Kvitova described what it felt like to win the Premier Mandatory event in Madrid on Saturday. Most fans and fellow players would agree with the first word she used: Every victory by the friendly and down-to-earth Czech is a popular one inside and outside the WTA locker room.
But judging by her history in Madrid, and her history so far in 2018, no victory by Kvitova can seem weird right now. Her 7-6 (6), 4-6, 6-3 win over Kiki Bertens, in two hours and 52 minutes, was her 11th straight in the last 14 days. It also left her with her a tour-best 30 match wins and four titles on the season; improved her record to 12-2 in three-setters this year; and gave her three titles at the Caja Magica since 2011. Along the way, she knocked off some of the most in-form players of the spring—Bertens, Karolina Pliskova, Daria Kasatkina and Anett Kontaveit.
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By the time her marathon with Bertens—a “big fight,” as she called it—had reached the start of the third set, Kvitova’s face had turned bright red and her breathing had become labored—she was “exhausted,” she said. The match had been a stylistic standoff: On one side of the net, Kvitova belted line drives toward the corners and tried to impose her will, and her superior power, as soon as she could; on the other side, Bertens did whatever it took—scramble, slide, hack, loop, drop and bunt the ball—to make the rallies last a little longer, and make Kvitova run a little farther.
When the match reached the latter stages of the third set, and Kvitova began to trudge across the court between points, it looked like Bertens’ kitchen-sink tactics would prevail. Until Kvitova suddenly broke for 5-3 and held at love with her most convincing service game of the match.
How did she find the energy to make it across the finish line?
“I have no idea,” Kvitova said with a laugh. She took it, quite literally, one shot at a time. “I was really thinking that I can’t do it anymore. But then, when you step on the shot again, you’re just trying to hit the return, you play the rally, the serves, whatever.”
The fact that this was a final made all the difference to Kvitova, as it traditionally has. She’s now a stellar 24-7 in title matches. There’s something about seeing the shiny hardware on the court that makes her eyes, and her heart, get a little bigger.
“I love to play those finals because of the trophy,” Kvitova said. “That’s what we’re fighting [for] all week, for the trophy. It’s always pretty close, but pretty far as well.”
Two weeks ago, Kvitova’s countrywoman, Pliskova, won a clay-court title in Stuttgart. Neither player is what you would call a dyed-in-the-wool dirtballer—if they can’t win with offense, they usually can’t win. But in Stuttgart and Madrid, each was forced to temper her normal, go-for-broke style and play with more patience. They were forced, in other words, to break their usual bad habits, and it worked for them.
Can Kvitova keep succeeding on clay? Is she “in the conversation” at Roland Garros now? Better not to ask her.
Told she was now among the favorites for Paris, Kvitova rolled her eyes, laughed, and said, “It’s crazy.” On second thought, though, she admitted that she had reached a semifinal there once upon a time, that “probably” she can play well there, and that while there are “maybe better players playing on the clay” than her, “we’ll see what happens.”
It’s normal and logical to wonder if the champion in Madrid could be the champion at Roland Garros. But for now, with Kvitova, it’s also beside the point. And this is where the “weird” part of her comment comes in. It is weird—“amazing” is probably the better term, but this humble woman will never say it about herself—that less than a year after she returned to the sport after suffering a knife attack on her playing hand, Kvitova is the WTA’s player to beat, and in the running for its player of the year. While Madrid isn’t quite a Grand Slam, it’s the next-best-thing on the women’s tour, and a milestone to celebrate in its own right.
“I know I missed this event last year,” Kvitova told the crowd on Saturday, “but it’s made it sweeter to be standing here with the trophy.”
Rather than look ahead and wonder what Kvitova can do in the future, it seems truer to the moment to look back at the last 12 months in wonder at what she’s already done.