Martina Navratilova and Jana Novotna, the last players from the Czech Republic to win the women's singles title here, looked onapprovingly from the Royal Box. Considering it has a population of only10 million people, the country has a remarkable record for producing world-class players and Centre Court rose yesterday to acclaim its latest champion as Petra Kvitova crushed Maria Sharapova 6-3 6-4.
A debut Wimbledon final can test the very best – Billie Jean King, Chris Evert and Steffi Graf are among those who lost in their first finals on Centre Court – but the 21-year-old Kvitova responded to the challenge in thrilling fashion. Sharapova, making her first appearance in the final since her victory here seven years ago, had no answer to the Czech's booming serves and bold ground strokes.
"It's an unbelievable feeling," the new champion said afterwards. "Maybe I'll accept it after some days." Navratilova and Novotna congratulated her after her victory. "They were so happy," Kvitova said. "I cried after I met them."
At 6ft, strong and athletic Kvitova has an excellent physique for the game, while her mental strength was evident in the way she coped with this occasion. It would be a major surprise if this was not the first of many Grand Slam titles, though the examples of some youthful champions of the past, such as Ana Ivanovic, suggest that building on a maiden victory is not necessarily straightforward.
Considering the fact that Kvitova lost her first four matches on grass – she had never won on the surface when she arrived here last year – her subsequent achievements are remarkable. This was her 16th victory in her last 18 matches on grass, her only defeats in the last two years having come against Serena Williams in the Wimbledon semi-finals last year and against Marion Bartoli in last month's Eastbourne final.
While comparisons with Navratilova, her childhood idol, will be inevitable, Kvitova plays a very different game. Although not uncomfortable at the net, she prefers to rally from the baseline, capitalising on her power. She might not move as smoothly around the court as some of her rivals, but she still gets plenty of balls back. There are no noticeable weaknesses in her game, while her serve and big ground strokes are her great strengths.
Along with Navratilova and Ann Jones, Kvitova is one of only three left-handers to win the women's title here in the Open era. A big-hitting leftie normally reaps a major dividend from swinging the serve away from the opponent's backhand in the advantage court, but Kvitova employed an even more damaging tactic against Sharapova.
The world No 8, aware both of Sharapova's wide reach and the fact that the Russian's movement has never been a strength, repeatedly served into her body. The speed of the Czech's serves meant that Sharapova had little time to get into position for her returns.
Kvitova used a similar ploy in many of the baseline rallies, driving the ball down the middle of the court, denying Sharapova the chance to take a big swing at it. All too often the Russian was forced into hitting the ball back short, enabling Kvitova to crash winning shots into the corners.
Sharapova served only six double faults – she had hit 13 in her semi-final – but some were at crucial stages of the match. The Russian has often struggled with her serve since having shoulder surgery three years ago and Kvitova regularly took advantage. Sharapova won only four out of the 15 points on her second serve.
Kvitova made a nervous start, dropping her serve as Sharapova hit a series of big returns, but broke back immediately. When Sharapova served at 2-3, the Russian hit two double faults in succession from 30-30 to give Kvitova what proved to be the decisive break of the first set.
Sharapova saved a set point with an ace two games later, but at 5-3 Kvitova hit three service winners as she took the game to love, wrapping up the set in 39 minutes.
More serving trouble lay in store for Sharapova at the start of the second set. Another double fault gave Kvitova break point, which the Czech converted with a superb forehand winner down the line. When Sharapova broke to level at 3-3 after Kvitova had missed an easy forehand put-away – not dissimilar to Andy Murray's blunder at a similar stage of his semi-final defeat by Rafael Nadal – you wondered whether the momentum might shift in the way it had to the Scot's disadvantage, but Kvitova's response was exemplary.
The Czech broke back immediately – the fourth successive break of serve – and was ice-cool when she served for the match. Two beautifully played points took her to 30-0 and a service winner brought up three match points. She needed only one of them, clinching victory with her first ace of the match, upon which she fell to her knees in celebration.
Sharapova acknowledged that her opponent had played "a terrific match" and paid tribute to Kvitova's power and strength. Nevertheless, the 24-year-old Russian found plenty of consolation in her performance here over the last fortnight, having reached her first Grand Slam final for more than three years.
"I think this is a big step for me," Sharapova said. "I feel like I'm improving this year. Considering that I hadn't been past the fourth round in a few years, this gives me a lot of confidence.
"I love playing on this stage. As a tennis player, I guess that's the dream. I would have loved to turn that match around, but it didn't happen today. Maybe it will happen tomorrow."