Petra Kvitova had just finished a three-hour 17-minute battle with Yulia Putintseva in the California desert heat and had a big smile on her face as she sat across from me in the players’ lounge at Indian Wells last month.
Kvitova’s brutal back and forth with the feisty Kazakh saw her extend her winning streak to 14 consecutive matches and equal the longest unbeaten run of her career.
No stranger to fighting through three-setters – her nickname is P3tra after all – Kvitova is 9-1 in deciding-set matches this season, but that clash with Putintseva was particularly gruelling.
She jokes that it made for some tough viewing for her father.
“Sorry for him to watch me play for more than three hours today, but he said they’re all still alive so that’s good,” assured the Czech two-time Wimbledon champion.
Like all good things, Kvitova’s winning streak ended in her next match at the hands of 16-year-old Amanda Anisimova.
But that magical run that saw her defeat six top-10 players in her title wins in St. Petersburg and Doha will surely be remembered as a highlight when this season comes to a close.
Just 15 months earlier, Kvitova was attacked by a knife-wielding intruder in her apartment in the Czech Republic. All five fingers of her left playing hand were damaged and until now, the feeling in her hand is not exactly as it was before the attack.
Kvitova had surgery, did rehab, recovered and returned to the competition court at Roland Garros in May last year. In just her second tournament back, she won the title in Eastbourne on her beloved grass.
Fast-forward to February 2018, and Kvitova has taken her level up a notch to go undefeated for 14 matches and return to the world’s top-10 for the first time since June 2016.
Did she stop herself for a second to think why she’s been able to elevate her game and win all these matches recently?
“Not really,” she says with a laugh.
“I think in St. Petersburg I really played great tennis. In Doha, I didn’t play that good, but I still won it. Which actually for me, it’s kind of, not surprise, but I didn’t really expect it.
“I wasn’t really serving that well against (Garbine) Muguruza or Caroline (Wozniacki), it wasn’t great but I was still able to win it somehow. Why did I win it? And I don’t know.”
Courage. Belief. Pojd. Those were the words printed on the t-shirts worn by Kvitova’s team during her comeback tournament at Roland Garros last year.
Through incredibly difficult and traumatic circumstances, Kvitova has shown strength. Where does she draw it from?
“I think it’s from the heart. The fighter inside me, I never give up anything, I think that’s probably the thing where I’m the strongest,” says the 28-year-old.
“When I was practicing with my father, he taught me as well how to be a fighter. It’s tough to explain how but for example when I played tournaments as a kid, he never really said that I played badly or something, but he always was focusing on how I was behaving on the court and if I gave up like one ball or something, he would get really angry. I didn’t want him to get angry, so probably he taught me how to be strong somehow.”
A peak Petra Kvitova is a force of nature. On a good day, she can blow anyone off the court, and recently there have been more good days than bad. She singles out her wins over Elena Vesnina and Julia Goerges in St. Petersburg as two matches this season where everything clicked for her.
I ask her if the satisfaction she gets from the sport these days is different compared to how it made her feel in the past.
“I don’t think so. If you ask this question before the attack I would probably say the same,” she asserts.
“I love the game itself. You’re out there alone and it’s all on you. You decide if you’ll go down-the-line, or cross-court, what you’re going to do, reading your opponent, it’s like chess a little bit, that’s what I love.”
She once told WTA Insider that her game plan entering a match is usually as simple as: hit aces, hit winners.
Does she really view tennis as that simple?
“I was joking at the time but at the end of the day yes. I do see the game is simple when I’m playing well. When I’m not, when I’m really struggling, it’s not simple at all,” she says with a smile.
Kvitova is the No. 2 seed in Charleston this week. Clay is far from being her favourite surface but she has had solid results on it, including two title triumphs in Madrid in 2011 and 2015.
When she won Madrid seven years ago, besting Victoria Azarenka in the final, she entered the top-10 for the first time.
Her return to the top-10 last February probably has different meaning behind it after everything she has been through.
“It’s tough to say. I think the first time when I got there it was something special for sure. I was young, playing well, it was in Madrid, I remember that match. This time for sure it’s totally different,” she explained.
“When I came back I wanted to play well and I’m really happy it’s happening and it’s showing in the rankings as well which is great.”
Kvitova’s career-high ranking is No. 2, which she first reached at the end of 2011. The top spot is in play almost every week on the women’s tour at the moment. Is getting to No. 1 on her bucket list?
“I still do have the goal to be there, I think somewhere inside me it’s still there but on the other hand I’m not really focusing on anything like that. It’s changed a little bit,” said Kvitova.
She prefers to focus on improving her tennis and her numbers show that her level is getting better and better. She is in the top-10 in multiple stats categories for the season including aces struck (she’s third behind Goerges and Karolina Pliskova), first serve points won (sixth on the list), service points won (eighth), service games won (eighth) and break point conversion (sixth).
But beyond the victories, the Slam wins, the aces, the forehands and everything she does on the court, Kvitova is clear in how she hopes to be remembered on tour.
“I would be very happy if they remember me as a good person probably. Saying hi, being normal, chatting in the locker room, having – not like grace – but behaving well on the court and off the court,” she says.
In that regard, it’s mission accomplished, Petra!
The WTA’s clay season has officially started with the Premier event in Charleston taking place this week, although some players are still holding onto one last opportunity to play on hard courts and have flocked to Monterrey.
The first few months of the year have seen a veteran like Caroline Wozniacki finally capture a maiden Grand Slam and a young up-and-comer like Naomi Osaka take the Premier Mandatory title in Indian Wells.
What will the clay season hold for the women of the WTA?
Here are the main storylines to look out for on the red (or green) dirt…
HOW MUCH CLAY WILL SERENA PLAY?
Serena Williams has been non-committal in any statements regarding her schedule since her return from maternity leave. The American superstar came back to the tour last month to play Indian Wells and Miami, losing in the third round of the former, and the first round of the latter.
She opted out of playing Charleston, even though it would have given her the opportunity to travel with her family inside the United States instead of taking a long flight abroad and it’s unclear whether she will play any clay events at all. Her coach Patrick Mouratoglou had told the New York Times back in February that she plans on playing Madrid, Rome and Roland Garros.
The following is what Serena said when she was asked about her clay schedule in Indian Wells.
“I have a really light schedule already. So obviously I want to work on getting my ranking to where I can just feel good about my ranking,” said Serena, who is currently ranked 449 in the world.
“But I don’t know how much lighter I can go. I don’t really play a lot. I just usually play tournaments and I try to do really good in those tournaments so I don’t have to play every week.
“And it’s different traveling with a kid. I definitely want to spend as much time as I can with her. My priorities are different.”
She has an apartment in Paris and loves the city. It’s hard to imagine she’ll skip the French Open.
HOW WILL OSTAPENKO HANDLE HER TITLE DEFENCE IN PARIS?
Jelena Ostapenko has had her ups and downs since she won the French Open as an unseeded 20-year-old last year. But still you can’t say that she wasn’t able to back up that win as she made the quarters in Wimbledon, claimed a title in Seoul end of 2017, and made the final in Miami last week.
The Latvian world No. 5 enters a critical part of her season where she has a title to defend at Roland Garros. Ostapenko isn’t playing Charleston, where she was runner-up last year.
It will be interesting to see how Ostapenko will deal with being the defending champion in Paris. She needed a bit of an adjustment period early this season, where she struggled with her results, but seems back on track after a stellar fortnight in Miami. The French Open will prove another important test for the young power-hitter.
CAN HALEP DO BETTER THAN LAST YEAR?
World No. 1 Simona Halep almost had the perfect clay season last year but fell one victory short of that. The Romanian made semis in Stuttgart, won Madrid, made the final in Rome then finished runner-up to Ostapenko in Paris.
She has won 19 out of 22 matches so far this season and now heads to her beloved clay as the world No. 1. She is a two-time finalist at Roland Garros, and a three-time Grand Slam runner-up overall. Can she go one better this year and finally clinch a first Major? She’s certainly one of the top contenders for the crown.
WILL DASHA UP THE ANTE ON HER FAVOURITE SURFACE?
Daria Kasatkina has had a stellar couple of months where she reached the semis in St. Petersburg and the finals in Dubai and Indian Wells. The 20-year-old Russian has notched SIX top-10 wins already this season and she wasn’t even playing on her favourite surface, which is clay.
Kasatkina won the Roland Garros junior title in 2014 and her only WTA trophy to date came on the green clay of Charleston last year.
She’s knocking on the door of the top-10 and is one to watch this upcoming stretch.
CAN SVITOLINA FINALLY CRACK THE SLAM CODE?
World No. 4 Elina Svitolina won two clay titles last season, in Istanbul and Rome, and went to Roland Garros as one of the main contenders. She led Halep by a set and 5-1 in the French Open quarter-finals, and held a match point, but ended up losing the second set tiebreak and got bagelled in the decider to go 0-3 in career Grand Slam quarter-finals.
Svitolina, the 2010 Roland Garros junior champion, has two titles under her belt this season, won in Brisbane and Dubai. She’s No. 4 in the Porsche Race to Singapore thanks to her 18-4 win-loss record in 2018.
Can she exorcise her demons from that brutal loss to Halep in Paris and finally enjoy a Grand Slam breakthrough?
WHO WILL END THE CLAY SEASON AS WORLD NO. 1?
The world No. 1 ranking has been in play almost every week on the WTA tour and it won’t be surprising if it switches hands again by the end of the clay season. With Halep defending 3,070 points on clay in the next two and half months, it’s possible for others to catch up.
Nadal and Federer, together with Novak Djokovic and Andy Murray – the ever famous ‘Big Four’ – have seen their dominance in Masters 1000 tournaments disrupted recently, with six of the last 11 of these events won by a player outside this elite quartet.
But when it comes to the No. 1 ranking, no non-Big Four player has managed to take the helm since Federer first took over the top spot from Andy Roddick back in February 2004.
It’s more than 14 years later and no one has managed to shake the Big Four’s iron grip on that coveted No.1 position.
Only 110 points separate Nadal and Federer at the top but a total of 3,685 points stand between the Swiss and world No. 3 Marin Cilic.
Narrowing that gap between the top-two and the chasing pack is one mighty task with Federer and Nadal currently holders of two Slams each. One Grand Slam is worth 2,000 points.
It’s obvious that in order to get a new world No. 1 by the end of the year or next season, Federer and Nadal would have to perform very poorly at the Majors and the tournaments they’ve won last year and the chasing pack would have to step up and win Slams and Masters 1000s.
Even with two Masters and three more titles under his belt, someone like Alexander Zverev was more than 5000 points behind Nadal and Federer in the rankings end of last season.
It will take a herculean effort, but sooner or later, we will eventually see a non-Big Four player at the top of the rankings.
These are three of the most likely candidates to pull it off…
JUAN MARTIN DEL POTRO
Currently at No. 6 in the world, the tall 29-year-old from Tandil, Argentina has been marching back up the rankings, showing signs of the form that saw him stun Federer to win the US Open nine years ago. Already a two-time titlist this season, having triumphed in Acapulco and Indian Wells, Del Potro is becoming more and more comfortable with his new backhand, after triple-surgery on his left wrist forced him to add more slices and variety to that shot.
If he stays healthy, Del Potro is one player who has the quality and experience to win Slams and threaten the Nadal-Federer duopoly. Del Potro’s career-high ranking of No. 4 was first achieved back in 2010. Could he go higher by end of 2018?
Only one of three players outside the Big Four to win a title in the last 52 Grand Slams, Cilic continues to be underrated even when he’s No. 3 in the world, a US Open champion in 2014, and a runner-up at Wimbledon 2017 and Australian Open 2018. While he upped his consistency last season (which is why he is No. 3 with only one title won in the last 12 months), Cilic will have to dig even deeper to try and close in on Federer and Nadal.
The Croat has got a lot of points to defend during the grass season (finals in Queens and Wimbledon), and has had indifferent results this year outside of the Australian Open.
Remains a candidate though due to his ability to surprise on the biggest stages, and has weapons to defeat anyone on a good day.
The glaring hole in the young German’s resume is the fact that he has never made it past the fourth round at a Grand Slam. He’s made the second week just once at the Majors – reaching the Wimbledon fourth round last year – but has won two Masters 1000s and was runner-up in Miami last Sunday. The 20-year-old is 11-17 against top-10 opposition, and is 6-4 in career finals so far. He’s already a top-four player without doing well at the Slams. Just imagine where he’d be if he finally cracks the best-of-five, two-week formula!