If you wanted to provide evidence for the most renowned clichés in tennis in a courtroom, Thursday afternoon’s Wimbledon match between sixth-seeded Petra Kvitova and Kristina Mladenovic would be your exhibit A to present to the jury.
Kvitova is not 100-percent healthy, but she did improve within the course of this match. Temporary healing is not the same as permanent healing, but it can matter. We will see with Kvitova.
Back to the notion of tennis cliches. Let’s begin with how important the first two games are in each set.
I maintain often that sets are decided in the first three games more often than they are in the last three games, and although I don’t keep data to back me up on this, tournament after tournament I watch matches where a player gets an early jump and rides the momentum pretty far into the match before the opponent can recover and build some confidence. The first set here was almost – I repeat, almost – one example that I could add to my vault of evidence for how true that cliché can be.
Kvitova began the match on her serve and played her most dismal game of the match. If you are an optimist à-la-Candide of Voltaire, you can say that she got it out of the way early. She started the match with an unforced forehand error and followed it up with two double faults in the next three points to lose her serve when Kiki won the 30-40 point at the net. Kvitova acknowledged in her post-match press conference that she was “tight and nervous” at the start.
Later, when asked if she thought about her deeply disappointing exit in last year’s edition when Aliaksandra Sasnovich (6-0 in the third) beat her on that same Court No. 1, she also admitted that she did:
“To be honest, I did. I didn’t want the same result as last year, being back on the Court 1. So, I’m really glad that I turn it on my side this time. Hopefully that match will be from the last year. Yeah, I’m glad I do have now the better memories on the Court 1.”
By the time Kiki held to confirm the break and lead 2-0, Petra had already committed four unforced errors and two double faults. She was able to stop the freefall with a rare occurrence in tennis, a service hold of four consecutive aces. They were her only aces of the set, other than a late one at 6-5, but she at least got on the scoreboard, which brings another cliché into the picture, the one that points to having a reliable weapon you can fall back on when all else fails.
Heaven knows all else failed for Petra in the first two games. Her first serve came to the rescue in the form of four aces so that she could at least steady the ship. That she did, cutting down on her unforced errors; she never faced a break point again for the rest of the first set.
The next goal was to break Kiki’s serve to level the match before it was too late for this set. But the early break turned out to be quite costly – almost too costly – because it was not until the 4-5 game, and some considerable help by Mladenovic, that Kvitova was able to level the match again, which brings us to the third cliché, the one my good friend and head editor of Tennis with an Accent Matt Zemek refers to with the hashtag #InnerGame in his tweets – or sometimes as #PlayingWithALead.
Before I get to that, let me provide you with a quick assessment of Mladenovic’s output until that juncture of the match.
She played a stellar string of nine games to start the match. She executed a brilliant tactic which consisted of striking first and not letting Petra draw first blood in rallies. With both players looking to strike first, the rallies remained ultra-short. 58 points were played in those nine games (until 5-4) and only one went above five shots. 39 of them (67%) ended before it even reached the third shot!
In short, Kiki was literally beating Petra at her own game.
Other than the four-ace game by Petra, Kiki also did a decent job of getting a lot of returns back into the court against the Czech’s tricky lefty serve. Mladenovic saved the three break points she faced in the 4-3 game with rock-solid serves that Kvitova could not return. To add icing to the cake, she committed only two unforced errors while playing an aggressive brand of tennis. Kvitova acknowledged herself that after she “played really bad game, the first game” her opponent “played great” and “was serving really well.”
However – and now we get to Matt’s #InnerGame – when the time came to hold that one last time to pocket the set at 5-4, Mladenovic could not get it done. The first thing jitters attacked in Kiki’s game was her first serve. She made only one first serve in the first six points of the game (a total of 2 out of 10 in the game). She still got to 40-15, thus holding two set points on her racket. Then, jitters must have attacked her second serve too.
She squandered the first set point with a double fault. Kvitova forced an error out of her on the second. Kiki had a third set point at ad-in, but Kvitova saved that one too with a thunderous down-the-line forehand winner. On the next point at deuce, Kiki hit double fault. On the ensuing break point for Petra, Kiki hit a double fault again!
Just like that, Kvitova was back on serve at 5-5. Yes, she deserved the credit for the guts it took to go for that bazooka forehand on the third set point and for the precision on her shot. But she also got help from Mladenovic, who squeezed into that game three out of her five double faults, one on set point.
From that point forward, Kvitova, who had been progressively playing better, took charge. She struck one shot after another to the corners of the court, losing only 3 out of the next 11 points to close out the set 7-5. From 4-5 to 7-5, Kvitova made only two unforced errors compared to 10 in the first nine games. She is a two-time Wimbledon champion who also won 27 WTA titles.
She is clutch! – should that also be a cliché? You decide.
The tide had indeed turned late in the first set and there was no stopping Kvitova in the second. Perhaps that is the last cliché to bring up. Once you give an inch to a champion, they take a mile. Kvitova found her groove and she was not going to dial back.
In any case, here is what she said about that sequence:
“I was probably just a little bit stronger at that time [after ninth game] and took 7-5. From the time I started to feel much better,” she said. “I think when the match gets little bit longer, I just play better and better. I felt much better in the rallies afterwards. When I put the return in, I just felt maybe it’s on my side when we are playing the rallies.”
Although there was an exchange of service breaks to start the second set, Kvitova’s baseline strokes were clicking on all cylinders. She produced six winners, building points well enough to win five out of six points when she approached the net. To top it all, she cut down drastically on errors, committing only three unforced ones. The end result was a dominant set on behalf of Kvitova, who got the perfect ending she needed in order to get primed and ready for her third-round encounter against Magda Linette in the third round.
As to her physical condition, specifically her arm injury, Kvitova could not completely give herself a clean bill of health:
“Well, it’s still same. I can’t say it’s better, I can’t say it’s worst. I mean, I’m feeling everything on my body. It’s not really surprising. We’ll see how that will look like tomorrow.”
We certainly wish Petra a healthy tournament! She found the medicine she needed to restore herself after Mladenovic started brightly.