Skoda-driver Kvitova makes fast progress to conquer Sharapova

The Wimbledon champion has reached the top despite only playing for 'an hour or so' until the age of 16
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The Independent Online

Five years ago she was a schoolgirl who would play tennis for an hour after lessons were over for the day. Today, at the age of just 21, Petra Kvitova is Wimbledon champion, hailed as a force who can lead a change in the world order in the women's game.

Kvitova competes in an age when many champions are nurtured and monitored from their earliest days, like tomato plants in a hot-house. Maria Sharapova, beaten 6-3, 6-4 by the Czech in Saturday's final, started playing tennis aged four, was identified by Martina Navratilova as a special talent at six and moved with her father to Nick Bollettieri's academy in Florida at nine. Visa restrictions and family finances meant the Russian was separated from her mother for the next two years.

Compare that with Kvitova's upbringing in Fulnek, where her father, a former teacher, is the deputy mayor. Nearly 200 miles east of Prague, the town has a population of just 6,000.

"There is nothing special there," Kvitova said. "We have four tennis courts, one football ground and a castle. Until I was 16 I only played for an hour or an hour-and-a-half after school. I didn't have any sparring partners. I just played with my two brothers and my parents. I didn't think that I could be a tennis player. My father was my coach until I was 16 or 17. My parents then encouraged me to move to Prostejov, where I saw people like Tomas Berdych practising."

Kvitova, who has an apartment in Fulnek, makes the one-hour drive to Prostejov every day in her Skoda. "I don't think I'll buy a new car," she said when asked how she might spend the £1.1m prize money that goes with her Wimbledon win. "I've seen some Skodas here [in Britain]. They are superb!"

Prostejov, an hour's drive from Fulnek, is hardly a major metropolis – it has a population of 48,000 and is best known for its military base – but its tennis club has a remarkable track record for producing world-ranked players. Berdych and his girlfriend Lucie Safarova still train there, as did Radek Stepanek and Jiri Novak.

Kvitova appreciates the speed of her rise, which should see her climb to No 7 in today's updated world ranking list. "Last year I was here and I was No 62 in the world," she said. "Now I'm No 8 and I've won Wimbledon. It's so quick."

Whenever a new young champion emerges there is a tendency in some quarters to suggest that they will dominate for years to come. That process began as soon as Kvitova held aloft the Venus Rosewater Dish, but the road from emerging superstar to multiple Grand Slam champion can be a rocky one. Just consider Ana Ivanovic, who has never come close to claiming another major title since winning the French Open three years ago.

What you can say about Kvitova is that she has superb physical attributes – she is 6ft tall, has a powerful frame and moves reasonably well for a player with such a build – and an excellent all-round game. She has a big leftie serve and fine returns, hits the ball with great power from both flanks and can play at the net, even if her default position is on the baseline.

Comparisons with Martina Navratilova, the last left-handed Czech to win the title here, are inevitable, but Kvitova is as much a product of her own age – in which power hitting from the back of the court is the modus operandi for almost everyone – as Navratilova the serve-and-volley specialist was. Kvitova is only the third left-hander to win the women's title here in the Open era. The two others, Navratilova and Ann Jones, were watching from the Royal Box, as was Jana Novotna, the last Czech singles champion at the All England Club.

Kvitova has quickly grown to love playing on grass. She had never won a match on the surface when she arrived at Wimbledon last year but has now won 16 of her last 18 on grass. She has also won on other surfaces, her previous biggest victory having come on clay in Madrid two months ago.

"I had a favourite surface," Kvitova said. "It was only hard. After last year here it was grass. And this year after Madrid it was clay, so I like everything."

Kvitova suspected from her earliest experiences on grass that it could be a productive surface for her. "I played juniors here at Roehampton and I won and then I played here and I lost. I didn't feel like I could win Wimbledon, but I remember when I was serving and when I played fast that it was a problem for the other players."

Having the game, nevertheless, is of limited use without the mental strength. Many players do not show their best in their first Grand Slam finals – Billie Jean King, Chris Evert and Steffi Graf are among those who lost their first finals here – but Kvitova rarely faltered against Sharapova, the 2004 champion. She kept going for her shots and her strategy of concentrating on body serves and often hitting down the middle of the court brought rich rewards against an opponent who likes to have width when striking the ball.

"I had to work on the mental side," Kvitova said. "I improved a lot. When you win some matches you get more confident. I started the season very well and I think that's where my confidence has come from."

If there was disappointment for Sharapova, the 24-year-old Russian could take consolation from reaching her first Grand Slam final for three-and-a-half years. The 2004 Wimbledon champion has had a tough time since having shoulder surgery three years ago but is now back in the mix. The only problem is that she now has another younger rival to contend with.

Kvitova: the lowdown

* 8 March 1990 Petra Kvitova was born in Bilovec, Czechoslovakia. Trains at the same club as Tomas Berdych, last year's Wimbledon men's singles runner-up

* May 2008 Won first Grand Slam match against Akiko Morigami in French Open first round. Eventually beaten by Estonia's Kaia Kanepi in the fourth round

* January 2009 Won first WTA title at Hobart International in Australia

* Sept 2009 Lost to Belgium's Yanina Wickmayer in fourth round of US Open

* July 2010 Reached the semi-final of Wimbledon, losing to Serena Williams

* January 2011 Lost to Vera Zvonareva in quarter-final of the Australian Open

* June 2011 Lost to eventual winner, Li Na, in the French Open fourth round

* July 2011 Won Wimbledon, her first Grand Slam, by beating Maria Sharapova