A year ago, little-known Czech Petra Kvitova won her first match at the All England Club.
Then ranked #62, she had lost the opening rounds in her previous two appearances, but ended that streak when she pulled off one upset after another and eventually reached the semis.
We should've known that would be a sign of things to come.
This year Kvitova came to Wimbledon ranked #8 in the world, a career high. She had won three titles already in 2011, stunning Kim Clijsters in the Paris finals and claiming her biggest trophy a few months later in Madrid. But critics pointed out her spotty play -- she was down match points in her Paris second round against Barbora Zahlavova Strycova and lost in the final of a Challenger event to world #72 Magdalena Rybarikova in her home country.
Still, on her return to the tournament where she first hit everyone's radar, the twenty-one year old Czech was clearly on familiar ground. She wasn't really tested until the quarterfinals, where she dropped the middle set tiebreak to last year's other surprise semifinalist Tsvetana Pironkova. And though Victoria Azarenka tried to keep it close a match later, it was Kvitova again dominating that match with nine aces, forty winners and four breaks of serve.
In her first Slam final she met a slightly more decorated champion in 2004 titleist Maria Sharapova. The Russian had been on the rise again this year, climbing back into the top ten on the heels of a finals run in Miami and a trophy in Rome. And many oddsmakers put money on her to reclaim the title that launched her career seven years ago -- especially after both Williams sisters and top-ranked Caroline Wozniacki fell out of the event. And in her first six matches this past fortnight, the world #6 was nearly unstoppable, winning nearly three-quarters of her first serve points and never dropping a set.
Maria got off to a good start this morning too, breaking her opponent in the first game of the match. But Kvitova quickly leveled the score and a few games later pulled ahead. Up a set, momentum was on the Czech's side and she capitalized by getting the lead early in the second. But the pair traded breaks for the next twenty minutes or so as both ladies raced down balls and fired off blinding groundstrokes before Petra finally secured the deciding break in the seventh game. After less than an hour-and-a-half of play, it was the unlikely underdog raising the trophy in victory.
It was a comprehensive win for Kvitova, whose domination of her first Grand Slam final from beginning to end reminded me a bit of Maria's demolishing of Serena Williams in the '04 championship. She showed no signs of nerves on the grandest stage and little of the streakiness that's caused many to give her grief over the past year. And with the title she's proven the couple big wins she's put together in 2011 were no fluke -- and that the jump she's made could have even farther to go. She's now proven she's an all-court player, so few opponents should feel they're in for an easy ride under any circumstances. Whatever her shortcomings, this young woman has established herself as a real force in this sport.
All she had to do was win Wimbledon.