Why do I mention the name of the 1998 Wimbledon champion? Because after Petra Kvitova of the Czech Republic won her semifinal against Victoria Azarenka, ESPN flashed a graphic that Kvitova’s effort marked the first time since the great Martina Navratilova in 1994 that a Czech woman had reached the Wimbledon final. Even I fell for it and I’m sorry I did. But you can’t blame ESPN for being blinded so to speak by the incredible history of Navratilova who not only overwhelms Wimbledon history but the histories of her past Czech compatriots.
I expect for those who don’t follow tennis except during the Majors, Kvitova will be a surprise participant in Saturday’s final. She’s still something of an unknown even though she had her breakthrough moment last year reaching the Wimbledon semifinals. After a quiet second half of 2010, Kvitova broke into the top ten with title runs at Brisbane, Paris and Madrid, impressing many with her big lefty serve and almost unconscious ability to produce point ending winners at command. Still, she still comes across with a bit of a “deer in the headlights” look when dealing with the media or in interviews. I don’t think it’s because she’s shy or because English is still her second language, but more that she’s still getting used to dealing with all of the attention that being a rising star brings. The WTA has been waiting for a new personality and if Kvitova wins her first Wimbledon she will certainly become that, but how she handles newfound worldwide fame will be interesting to watch. Maybe she and Li Na can commiserate over the summer during the hardcourt season.
For Sharapova, who let’s face it, played a horrible match against Sabine Lisicki but still managed to win in straight sets, reaching her second Wimbledon final after her star-making victory in 2004 is something of a perfect ending after all of her trials during the last three years. Even though she will be at least No. 5 in the world (and No. 3 if she wins), despite climbing back to the top of the ranks, it’s that shoulder and that serve that still remain the biggest question mark for Sharapova, not only in Saturday’s final, but for the rest of her career. She’s got the will to win like no other, but will it be enough if she finds herself missing the mark, especially when she bangs down a second serve. A second Wimbledon title would further cement her status on and off the court and with the Williams Sisters and Kim Clijsters still very TBD for not only this year but next, you know the WTA would love nothing more than Sharapova to prove she really is all the way back.
So who will win? Both Kvitova and Sharapova play “Plan A” tennis. But we saw in both semifinals that when Kvitova and Sharapova start missing or drop in their levels, they still are the ones dictating play, waiting for their opponents to step up and take advantage. What will happen Saturday if one is forced to try “Plan B” which for both women is really just keeping banging away until the shots start falling back in the court? Plenty will pick Sharapova because of her experience in Grand Slam finals. But Kvitova doesn’t strike me as one who will tense up in her first Major final. If nothing else, she might just play looser and take it to Sharapova, much like Maria did in that 2004 final against Serena Williams.
Watching Jana Novotna finally, and I mean finally win her first Wimbledon title after three tries was a moment I still remember. Novotna was one of the last true serve and volleyers in the women’s game and her victory after enduring one of the greatest “chokes” in sports history was a testament to her ability as a player and her belief that she had the game to win Wimbledon. Kvitova is hoping to add her name to a short list of great Czech players that includes Hana Mandlikova who played in the Wimbledon finals twice but never won and who coached Novotna to her Wimbledon title. The odds and history appear to be on Sharapova’s side, but it could just be that Kvitova, who long idolized Navratilova despite their careers being decades apart, will be ready to add her name not just to Czech history, but to Wimbledon’s as well.