October 30, 2011

A Banner Year

If at the start of 2011, someone had said then-#34 Petra Kvitova would be a Grand Slam and WTA champion by the end of the year, few would've believed it. But the twenty-one year old Czech has spent the last ten months honing her game, moving up the rankings, and earlier today capped off the best season of her still-young career.

She kicked off the year in style, defeating four higher-ranked opponents to capture the title in Brisbane and several weeks later dominated Kim Clijsters at the Paris Indoors final. Of course that was all small potatoes compared to her stunning victory at the All England Club, which ultimately announced her arrival in the elite.

Kvitova struggled a bit since July, winning just two matches during the summer hard-court season and losing in the first round at the U.S. Open. But with a run to the semis in Tokyo and a title in Linz, it looked like momentum was back on her side, and when she got to Istanbul for her first ever appearance at the year-end championships she was at the top of her game.

She got off to a good start in the round robins, taking out two-time Major finalist Vera Zvonareva in straight sets, avenging her loss at the Pan Pacific Open. She followed it up with a straightforward win over world #1 Caroline Wozniacki and completed her rout of the Red Group by taking out Aggie Radwanska on Friday. She lost her first set of the tournament to Sam Stosur in the semis, but rebounded from the 5-7 deficit to take out the U.S. Open winner after just over two hours of play.

Over in the White Group Victoria Azarenka was trying to cap off her own career-best year. The twenty-two year old had won a trio of titles in 2011, highlighted by reclaiming the trophy in Miami, and put up her deepest run at a Major with a semi showing at Wimbledon. But some consistent play throughout the year -- she's often faded out after a strong spring -- helped her climb to a high ranking of #3 in September, and got her on the radar of pundits looking for the Next Big Thing in women's tennis.

In Istanbul, her third consecutive appearance at the year-end championships, Vika was quick to get off on the right foot. Previously unable to get out of the round robins, the Belarusian came out swinging against Sam Stosur, notching the win in just over an hour. The next day she reversed her recent record against Na Li, who'd knocked her out at both the Australian and French Opens, to secure her spot in the semis. Though she lost her third match against Marion Bartoli -- a replacement after Maria Sharapova withdrew with injury -- Azarenka posted an easy win over Vera Zvonareva Saturday, setting up her third meeting with Kvitova this year. She'd lost on both previous occasions.

The match-up between the two young stars certainly lived up to its potential. Kvitova came out firing and built up an impressive 5-0 lead in the first set. But an increasingly consistent Azarenka somehow managed to draw even, thwarting the Czech on two attempts to serve out the set. Petra broke again in the twelfth game to regain the lead, but Vika didn't back down. They traded breaks early in the second, but ultimately a better service game and more aggressive return from Azarenka brought things to a tie again and forced a deciding set, even earning herself three break chances to start the third. But that's when Kvitova came alive -- after denying Vika on four opportunities that game she immediately broke again and never looked back. Finally after two and a half hours of play, it was Kvitova, in her Tour Championship debut, that came away with the title.

For her efforts, Petra Kvitova will end the year as #2 in the world and go into the 2012 season as a legitimate threat, really on any court -- considering the girl was ranked outside the top fifty just eighteen months ago, that's quite an accomplishment. She's proven that she can hit with the big girls and will likely beat them more often than she loses -- something other players in the top ten can't always say.

And if she can keep up her play, there's no telling what she could do next year.

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