Petra Kvitova: Retaining her Wimbledon title is all in the mind for Czech star

It has been a tough year so far for the 2014 champion, forced to take two months off with exhaustion. However, she tells Paul Newman that a fresh mental attitude has turned things around

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The Independent Online

Petra Kvitova’s rivals had better look out. A year ago the Czech made an early exit from the French Open and was then forced by injury to pull out midway through the Aegon International at Eastbourne, which was her only grass-court tournament before Wimbledon. The less- than-promising build-up was soon forgotten, however, as Kvitova went on to sweep aside all-comers and claim her second All England Club title in three years.

Twelve months on and the 25-year-old finds herself in a similar position. Although she went one round further at Roland Garros, where she lost in the last 16 to Timea Bacsinszky, a virus meant she did not even make it to the start line at Eastbourne, which again was going to be her only grass-court event before Wimbledon.

“Of course I wanted to play some matches, but it didn’t really make sense to play [at Eastbourne] and not be ready for Wimbledon,” Kvitova said this week. “Playing on grass is always a little bit weird at the start, but now I find I’m able to play on it again quite quickly. It’s always nice to step on the grass. I have beautiful memories, and I know I can play well on the grass.

“I have to still think  positively, and I hope I’m going to be ready for Wimbledon. I don’t play my first match until Tuesday, so there’s still time.”

It was only eight years ago that Kvitova stepped on to a grass court for the first time. Aged 17, she entered a junior tournament at Roehampton in the build-up to Wimbledon. “It seemed weird,” she recalled. “Everyone told me before the tournament: ‘You should do well playing on grass. You’re a leftie, you play aggressively, you hit flat shots.’ But when I stepped on court I thought: ‘Oh my God, I can’t move. What is this?’ It was so quick and the ball bounced so low.”

By the end of the week, nevertheless, Kvitova had won the tournament. “At the time I was a girl who didn’t care about anything,” she recalled. “I just played. It didn’t matter what the surface was.”

From Roehampton Kvitova went to Wimbledon, where she played in her first junior Grand Slam event, reaching the third round. “It was a big experience for me,” she said. “It was amazing to be in this historic place and to play on grass, which I’d never done before. I also got the chance to watch Rafa Nadal play on Centre Court.”

It was not long before Kvitova was playing on Centre Court rather than watching. Her record at the All England Club over the past five years is outstanding: semi-finals, champion, quarter-finals, quarter-finals, champion. Although she has made a mark at other Grand Slam events, having reached the semi-finals at both the Australian and French Opens, the  English garden of Wimbledon is where she blossoms.

“I think being left-handed helps a lot on grass,” Kvitova said. “I’m an aggressive player and I hit my shots quite flat. I don’t really play many rallies on grass, which I think is good. I like to go for my shots. I’ve always found the movement quite tricky, but I seem to get over that somehow. You have to get down so low on the grass, which I don’t find easy, but somehow I do it.”

As the world No 2 and defending champion, Kvitova will be the second favourite at Wimbledon this year behind Serena Williams, though she has had more than her share of problems so far in 2015.

At the end of last year she appointed a new fitness coach, Alex Stober, who had previously worked with many other top men and women, including Pete Sampras, Andre Agassi and Li Na. Under Stober’s regime, which was designed to maximise her power while improving her movement around the court, Kvitova lost 3kg in weight.

She looked in good shape in the early weeks of the new season, winning the title in Sydney before losing to Madison Keys in the third round of the Australian Open, but in the spring all was not well. Feeling exhausted and ill at ease on the court, she took a break of nearly two months.

“I felt like the season before hadn’t finished and I was still playing, working and practising, and hadn’t had any break,” she said. “Suddenly it all felt too much. I wasn’t enjoying it. I was really tired. I was playing with an empty feeling, which isn’t like me. I’m someone who usually loves to play, but I wasn’t feeling that.

“I don’t think it was just one thing. I think it was everything together. I think everything is connected mentally and physically in tennis. I really don’t know whether it was more mental or more physical. I was just tired.”

After the break, Kvitova parted company with Stober. “I just wanted to try to be Petra again,” she said. “I wanted to focus more on my tennis. From the beginning of the year I was really fit, but I think the important thing that I need is the head and the mind. That’s what makes me what I am.”

On her return, Kvitova won the title in Madrid, where she became the only player this year to beat Williams, who had won all five of their previous meetings. As Wimbledon approaches, Kvitova’s mental coach, Michal Safar, will no doubt be reminding her of that victory.

Safar travelled to Wimbledon with Kvitova for the first time last summer. “We spoke every morning and every night before I went to sleep,” Kvitova said. “He was with me all day, on the court, or with the coach, checking me. If something was wrong or troubling me I knew he was there. I don’t think it’s good to keep things inside you,  so it was a great help to have him there.”

She said Safar had been particularly helpful before her heavyweight showdown in the third round with Venus Williams and her quarter-final and semi-final meetings with her fellow Czechs, Barbora Strycova and Lucie Safarova. She admitted she had been especially nervous before those matches, though she believes nerves are healthy.

“I think you have to be nervous if you want to play your best tennis,” she said. “I found it very stressful playing against the Czech girls. When I beat Lucie in the semi-finals it was suddenly a very big relief for me. I was more nervous before the semi-final than I was before the final.”

The final against Eugenie Bouchard was the shortest at Wimbledon for 31 years, with Kvitova winning 6-3, 6-0 in just 55 minutes. The Czech dropped only one set en route to the title, compared with two when she won in 2011.

Did Kvitova believe the Petra of 2014 would have also beaten the Petra of 2011? “If I played like I played in the 2014 final, it would be the 2014 version who would win,” she smiled. “And if it’s going to be how I played in the first round – well, it would probably still be the 2014 Petra.”