Matt Zemek

The story of Petra Kvitova’s Wimbledon loss on Tuesday to a deserving Aliaksandra Sasnovich begins in an unexpected place. Stories sometimes own origination points which are far removed from the locations where they end. Such is the case after this round-one upset which nevertheless carries a reasonable, rational explanation.

Look at this weather almanac for April 30-May 7, 2011. https://www.timeanddate.com/weather/@6359304/historic?month=5&year=2011

Look at this one for May 2-9 of 2015. https://www.timeanddate.com/weather/@6359304/historic?month=5&year=2015

Then look at this one for May 5-12 of 2018. https://www.timeanddate.com/weather/spain/madrid/historic?month=5&year=2018

Those were the dates when the Mutua Madrid Open held its women’s tournaments in those respective years. Those happened to be the years in which Petra Kvitova won Madrid, which is her most successful tournament in terms of championships (3) combined with the highest tier of significance (Premier Mandatory). Kvitova’s second most successful tournament, as measured by titles and tier, is New Haven, also with 3, but at the Premier level. Kvitova’s third most successful tournament is Wimbledon, the highest in significance but a place where she has won only twice, not three times.

Is it surprising that Kvitova’s most dependable tournament — if “dependable” is framed as “the most significant tournament where a player wins championships” — is on clay? Sure. That is a deviation from Kvitova’s prowess on grass and hardcourts, including indoor venues. However, when viewed in other contexts, the primacy of Madrid among Kvitova’s various championship locations is no accident.

Kvitova’s 25 titles have come in 18 separate locations. Of those 18 locations, seven are summer locations: Hobart, Brisbane, Sydney, Canada, Birmingham, Wimbledon, and New Haven. Of those seven locations, only two do not involve any nighttime (artificial light) tennis, barring the need for a roof in the event of rain: Birmingham and Wimbledon. (Birmingham doesn’t have a roof in any circumstance.)

This might seem random and pointless, so in order to make sure this is connected to the larger thesis of this piece, let me explain a few points.

As Carl Bialik and others who follow tennis have noted, this is generally a hot-weather sport. Tennis is generally played in locations where the weather is hot and locations can expect sunshine to preserve their orders of play and also sell lots of cold refreshment. In the case of the majors, two of them structure their tournaments around holidays: Australia Day in Melbourne and Labor Day in New York. These tournaments are played in summer to take advantage of summer holidays and the magnet effect they have on attendance at their events.

Bialik has argued — and I have agreed with — the idea that tennis should take more steps to make its tournaments cooler, whether that involves building half-roofs or awnings or covers to provide more shade, or providing misting systems to cool down both fans and athletes. It would be great to see if tennis — which has become so attritional in the modern age — could become less about survival and more about who can hit a ball the cleanest.

2018 Wimbledon Championships - 3 Jul
Image – Jimmie 48

It can reasonably be argued — although the point is debatable and hardly airtight — that few tennis players have been hurt more by this attritional, hot-weather aspect of tennis tournaments than Kvitova.

Think about some more stats, flowing from the ones mentioned above: If Kvitova has won titles in seven summer locations and in only two summer tournaments where night tennis was never a built-in part of a planned schedule (only improvised at Wimbledon), that means her other 18 titles have come in 11 non-summer locations and in 16 where night tennis was part of the planned schedule.

Consider this as well: Kvitova — in a sport where the most important tournaments are generally hot-weather events — has won only three tournaments which check these two boxes:

  • summer
  • Premier 5 or higher

Wimbledon twice and one Canadian Open — Montreal in 2012 — are the only trophies in Kvitova’s collection which match those two simple but central details. The rest are either non-summer tournaments, or only Premier events, or a combination of both.

None of this is an indictment of Kvitova. I can never stress enough that after all she has gone through, there never is and never will be anything akin to a bad loss. She is exempt from such designations. If anything, this set of details shows why tennis definitely needs to have at least one showcase tournament indoors every year, which is why the WTA and ATP Finals belong indoors. Top players should always get the chance to show their skills at least once in a significant tournament not governed by harsh or volatile weather conditions.

Kvitova knows the feeling better than most.

If making the Australian Open final or the U.S. Open final was so easy for this naturally gifted hitter, the endurance test of modern tennis would not have gotten in her way by now… but it has. If the pattern of Kvitova not succeeding at majors — three played in summer in their respective locations, the fourth one on slow (non-Madrid) clay — was not so pronounced, this thesis couldn’t in good conscience be advanced.

Alas, the pattern IS pronounced and the lack of durability is unmistakable. Kvitova is the unlucky focal point for a sport which plays a lot in hot weather.

Madrid — instructively — sits outside this dynamic.

Madrid involves more shade on its three main show courts than other tennis tour venues. Madrid plays ample late-night matches. Madrid is played in the first or second week of May, before summer heatwaves arrive. Madrid plays faster than other clay venues, and the ball flies more through the court. It might be an accident that Kvitova has succeeded more in Madrid than, say, a few indoor tournaments or autumn tournaments, but it’s not an accident that Kvitova does well in Madrid. The weather archives at the beginning of this piece underscore that point.

Kvitova said she felt nervous against Sasnovich on Tuesday at Wimbledon. She clearly lost steam in the third set. Nerves certainly played a role in this loss, but to think that the presence of nerves had nothing to do with the warm weather (roughly 80 degrees for the high in Wimbledon on Tuesday, with no shade to be found on court) is not a realistic conclusion. The presence of a relentless sun surely made it harder for Kvitova to relish the prospect of long rallies, which very centrally played into the workings of the match. When Sasnovich was able to retrieve the Kvitova serve and engage the two-time Wimbledon champion in long rallies, she fared well. When Kvitova was able to get an unreturned serve or elicit a short ball she could swat away for a quick winner, she excelled, generally in the second set.

2018 Wimbledon Championships - 3 Jul
Image – Jimmie 48

An indicator of why — and how — “longer was better” for Sasnovich? The first eight games of the match, on grass, were played in 49 minutes. That’s roughly six minutes per game, a very high average in duration of time for grass. Kvitova, despite winning the second set and playing the kind of tennis she needed to win, didn’t have enough “Petra Petrol” to finish the job.

The conditions might not deserve to be viewed as the number one reason one player won and the other lost, but they certainly played a noticeable role in shaping the outcome.

It was one thing when Kvitova lost to Jelena Jankovic under a hot sun in 2015 at Wimbledon. She was defending champion, a reality which carries pressure and baggage regardless of the weather conditions. However, when Kvitova lost in sunshine to Madison Brengle last year at Wimbledon, it became a lot harder to think that Kvitova would solve the Wimbledon puzzle unless the weather cooperated with her.

The reality of the situation for Petra Kvitova — who has nothing to prove to anyone in tennis except herself, and who should never have to deal with any nonsense about a “bad loss” — is that in order to win Wimbledon, she needs cloudy and mild conditions. Maybe one of these years she will get that.

In the Madrid final against Kiki Bertens, Kvitova battled for two hours and 52 minutes to win a prolonged battle in cool and comfortable nighttime conditions. She played that tournament one day after winning in Prague, which featured very mild conditions. The extent to which Kvitova was able to battle through Prague and Madrid, and similarly in the Middle East this past February, shows how well she can fight in non-summer tournaments with comparatively mild weather. That very capacity to fight for a very long time in comfortable weather also shows, unfortunately yet undeniably, that the same capacity is harder for Kvitova to demonstrate and (importantly) sustain in hotter weather.

It might not be a fact in an impossible-to-disprove “2 plus 2 equals 4” sense, but it’s a line of analysis which can’t easily be wished away or ignored.

Maybe one day, the sun will shine yet again on Petra Kvitova at Wimbledon… figuratively, not literally.



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