“Can she handle the heat?”
This question, when posed to athletes, is almost always meant on a figurative level. Can a tennis player deal with the pressure of a moment, with expectations, with an intense media spotlight, with the best efforts of opponents determined to knock her off?
For Petra Kvitova at Wimbledon, that question applies on a literal level, not a metaphorical one.
Kvitova endured a one-set hiccup on Sunday in the Birmingham final against Magdalena Rybarikova, but after losing the first set of this championship match, the Czech did the opposite of Czeching out. She rolled in the final two sets, winning 12 of 15 games to take her fifth trophy of 2018. Kvitova earned a championship on a third separate surface (grass in addition to hardcourts and clay), becoming the first player to pull off that feat this year (and very possibly the only one). Kvitova blitzed the field in Birmingham, which will naturally invite plenty of predictions that Kvitova is ready to win a third Wimbledon title.
This is where the literal application of the word “heat” comes into play.
If you noticed, the weather in Birmingham this past week was mild — maybe not for the Brits themselves, but certainly in a larger context of what one refers to as “summer heat” or “summer conditions.” Melbourne, Australia; New York at the U.S. Open; Cincinnati; Washington, D.C.; Miami — these are tour stops with often brutally hot and/or humid weather. Kvitova has not done well in these cities. When she has lost at Wimbledon, it has often been in hot and generally uncomfortable conditions — to Madison Brengle and Jelena Jankovic, among other examples. When the sun pounds down, as it did on those days, and Kvitova can’t smother her opponent in the first set, a protracted battle can easily cut against her.
Want to pick Kvitova as your Wimbledon women’s singles favorite? That is — and will continue to be — a perfectly reasonable thing to do. With Serena Williams in uncertain physical shape, no WTA player combines health and current form better on grass than Kvitova does at the moment. The question standing in her way — and in the way of anyone who expects her to win a third Wimbledon crown — is the heat. Not the pressure or any metaphorical version of heat, but literal heat. This is not a figurative glare of light which shines down upon her at Wimbledon (though that spotlight will exist). This is a stream of sunlight which will pour down on her back.
If Kvitova gets cool or cloudy days, preferably both, the fortnight at SW19 will very likely be hers. If she has to face an 85-degree day against an opponent who can make her work and put extra balls in play, Kvitova’s status will become much more uncertain… and much more dependent on her ability to win short points with sustained efficiency.
A reminder: Petra Kvitova cannot disappoint me at Wimbledon. “Disappointment” cannot ever again belong to Kvitova in any meaningful sense, because she has overcome a life-threatening attack and a significant injury. That in itself is a major “victory” alone. That Kvitova keeps piling up WTA Tour titles in 2018 makes it even more amazing to comprehend what she has done. She is, and always will be, a marvel who elicits a beaming smile for me when I contemplate her journey. I hope the same is true for you, though I can’t force you to feel a certain way.
As for the business of predicting Wimbledon, though — which is its own separate matter — look to the skies… and the clouds… and the sun… if you want to take the temperature of Petra Kvitova’s chances at the All England Club.