Commentary

Can Kvitova become new face of WTA?

Originally Published: June 13, 2011
By Kamakshi Tandon | Special to ESPN.com

WIMBLEDON, England -- The symmetry was undeniable. A tall, blonde, unknown youngster comes out in the Wimbledon final and blows the former champion away in straight sets. Seven years ago, it was Maria Sharapova in that role, this year, she was the 6-3, 6-4 victim against Petra Kvitova.

But the similarities only go so far. The 17-year-old Sharapova became an instant celebrity and the new darling of the WTA circuit, but it took her a few years to grow into the role of a champion. It was more than a year before she touched No. 1 and two years before she captured a second Grand Slam. Kvitova is 21, physically stronger and with a more complete game than Sharapova had, or even has, based on the evidence of Saturday's final.

Sharapova was far from her best, but she also was not allowed to be -- Kvitova served better, returned better, bludgeoned the ball more effectively and showed more variety with slices and approaches. She has improved her fitness and proved her mental fortitude by holding her nerve in the final, quickly righting herself after a couple of wobbles near the end.

"I was surprised how I was feeling on the court because I was focused only on the point on the game and not on the final and the medal," she said.

Her coach of three years, David Kotyza, was not. "She's always playing very good in finals," he said in an interview after the match. "I know she never played in the final of a Grand Slam, but anyway I believed her before the final, that she can show her best.

"I think she didn't feel any big pressure because she likes to play on grass, she played very well in Eastbourne the week before. So she was just looking forward for every match and I think the start of the tournament she played very very well so she received more confidence."

So a champion may have been born, but was a star? The Czech lefty undoubtedly has the game to achieve big things, yet her short-term prospects will also be heavily influenced by how she handles the attention that comes with being the Wimbledon champion. Hesitant in English and shy in the spotlight, she does not seem ready to become the face and voice of the women's game right away.

There will also be more pressure on the court, as expectation rises and she becomes one of the hunted scalps after her big win. But Kotyza believes the experience of reaching the semifinals last year will help.

"I think she knows what happened last year after the semifinal in Wimbledon," he said. "She thought she has to win every match, and it was not possible. And after couple of losses, she improved mentally.

"I don't expect big losses like last year. I think [the win] is good for her, to make confidence for the big matches."

He is braced for the attention, but is not expecting Kvitova to get swept away by it. "She's shy, and if she speaks she's maybe more nervous than [when] she's playing," he smiled. "But she's improving also in English, I think. Next year will be better.

"Yeah, she's just ordinary girl, so I like it because compared to the success in tennis, she stays on the ground. And I think it's very important because now, it will be the big pressure for her. But if she stays like this, she can survive very good."

Kvitova's reaction to her new status will be the big unknown when she returns for the hard-court summer, to a women's tour that has been trapped in transition. The older, established champions are too physically battered to be consistent forces. Serena and Venus Williams, both coming back from injury, lost in the round of 16 here. Kim Clijsters was forced to miss the tournament when an ankle injury flared up. And Sharapova herself, still looking to hit her previous heights a year and a half after shoulder surgery. The group that filled in the gap during their various absences -- Ana Ivanovic, Dinara Safina, Jelena Jankovic, Svetlana Kuznetsova -- seem to have been mentally shattered by the experience.

At the same time, a new generation has struggled to break through. Caroline Wozniacki, 20, is No. 1 in the world but has famously yet to triumph at a major, and the rest of her age group had also not come close until this fortnight. Kvitova has become the first to win a major, and two fellow 21-year-olds were also there to accompany her in the semifinals -- Victoria Azarenka and wild card Sabine Lisicki.

In which direction will the tour go? The past two majors offer little sign -- two first-time champions, Kvitova here at 21 and Li Na, 28, in the French Open.

And does it matter? Marion Bartoli fired this parting shot on behalf of the field during Wimbledon: "Because we are not named Serena or Venus Williams doesn't mean we don't know how to play tennis," she said. "I think women's tennis just [needs] to have more matches like that so people will enjoy to come and watch us. Even though we don't have some big name, some big-star name, we're still be able to play some good matches."

Her fellow players backed her up, playing a string of entertaining encounters on Centre Court and elsewhere. Highlights included Venus against Kimiko Date-Krumm, Flavia Pennetta against Bartoli, Francesca Schiavone against Tamira Paszek, all going overtime in the third set.

It fits the recent trend of exciting early-round women's matches and upsets at the majors followed by a lack of drama in the later rounds. If more players can follow Kvitova's example and bring their strongest tennis in the later rounds, she will end up being a fine leader for the circuit.

Kamakshi Tandon is a freelance tennis writer for ESPN.com.