Experience not the only factor in final
WIMBLEDON, England -- Maria Sharapova is the superstar, but Petra Kvitova could be the one to keep an eye on in the Wimbledon final. If the 21-year-old Czech can play the way she has for most of the tournament -- a big if, given that this will be her first Grand Slam final -- Sharapova will have to play her best tennis of the fortnight to keep up. In the end, it will be a battle of serve and nerve.
Here are a few things to look out for when the two meet Saturday. Maria Sharapova
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Is fiancée Sasha Vujacic Sharapova's secret weapon? With his team out of the playoffs, the NBA point guard was able to accompany Sharapova around Europe this spring and has quickly become known for his vociferous cheering from the box. She's 18-2 since the start of the clay-court season, compared to 13-5 during the early part of the year. Coincidence? Maybe, but it can't hurt. And with a labor dispute putting the new NBA season on hold starting Friday, she could be set for a good summer with Vujacic in tow.
But is he offering any tennis tips? "I don't think I would allow that," Sharapova quipped.
Just like it did at the French Open, Sharapova's serve let her down in Thursday's semifinals -- 13 doubles, and converting just 48 percent of her first serves. Unlike at the French, however, she survived. Now how will the serve look in the final? The answer could determine the outcome of the match.
The comeback connection
It's been the era of comebacks on the WTA Tour: Serena Williams and Venus Williams in constant return mode, Kim Clijsters and, briefly, Justine Henin. Two years after shoulder surgery, it might be Sharapova's turn to rise back to the top.
The prior experience
After playing her invitational doubles at Wimbledon, Martina Navratilova spoke to reporters about the women's final.
"It's such a toss-up. It basically comes down to who serves better," she said. "Once the ball is in play, Sharapova has an edge.
"It will totally be big-babe tennis, first strike on the ball. I think Maria probably has the best return in the game. With the serves, I think Kvitova will get on top of the rally a little bit earlier than Maria, maybe.
"I think for Petra, the key has always been to minimize the streaks of bad play."
Since the quarterfinals, Sharapova has been the only player in the draw to have played a Grand Slam final. "Experience is an incredible asset because you feel like you've been through many different situations," said the 24-year-old veteran, before adding, "You know, at the end of the day, you really have to deliver, even if you have the experience or not."
The postmatch interview
On court, she has been a tough nut for opponents to crack, and an even tougher one for journalists off the court. Despite a pleasant smile and demeanor, Kvitova speaks very sparingly in English. Reporters struggled to draw things out of her after the semifinal, asking about 35 questions -- 10 more than Sharapova got. Even with the variety of topics, only one question elicited an answer as long as seven lines -- the average length of Sharapova's shortest answers.
At one stage came an inquiry that smacked of despair: Is there anything you can tell us about yourself as a person?
"Well, so I'm happy if I'm with the family, of course, at home. Go to the cinema with friends, reading book. I don't know what else. Yeah, That's it."
Yeah, that is it, so far. (Well, almost -- the novels are crime books.)
Still, Kvitova has been compelling during matches with her lefty serve, huge groundstrokes and occasional shows of slice and volleying, so her reticence won't matter come Saturday. Until the postmatch speeches, anyway.
Kvitova possesses a big serve given extra variety and bite by her lefty delivery, and leads the field with 93 percent of service games won. "It seems that the lefties always have a good slice," said Martina Navratilova, the (accurately) self-declared best left-hander in the history of the women's game. "She has a great slice. She doesn't hit the T-serve [down the line] as much. She hits it so hard, she doesn't have to locate the ball that well. It's still a winning serve."
The advantage of a big serve is that it allows players to hold relatively easily or serve their way out of a close game. That in turn puts extra pressure on opponents when they serve, because getting broken could spell the end of a set. With Sharapova looking potentially vulnerable on her own delivery, this could turn the match in Kvitova's favor.
The Martina connection
Kvitova admired fellow Czech lefty Navratilova growing up -- not a bad role model for success on these lawns, given that Navratilova won this title a record nine times. The two met for the first time when Kvitova reached the semifinals last year.
"It's funny, because I haven't had that many players that said, 'You're my hero,'" said Navratilova, 54. "It's nice. I thought she was too young for that."
To see how a lack of experience can sometimes be an asset, once again there's no need to look further than Sharapova, who won here for the first time as a 17-year-old making her debut in the final. "Yeah, because it's something where you don't really know what to expect and you almost have that feeling of nothing to lose and you go for it," Sharapova said. "I think that's kind of what I did when I was here at the stage of being 17 years old."
Kamakshi Tandon is a freelance tennis writer for ESPN.com.
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