Fed Cup is just around the corner, but the WTA Tour season has ended for Petra Kvitova. Her WTA Finals journey didn’t offer a magic catapult to the semifinals. When she lost to fellow Czech Karolina Pliskova in Singapore, she was eliminated, enabling her to focus on the tie between the Czech Republic and the United States on November 10 and 11 in Prague.
What should be said about Kvitova this year is little different from the end of last year… and it will not be much different in the future, either: Kvitova owns a lifetime pass exempting her from criticism for her tennis.
You might not share that view, and if you don’t, that’s perfectly fine, but I think that when an athlete goes through a profound personal trauma along the lines of what Kvitova faced, any notion of raking her over the coals for not doing well enough at Wimbledon or not piling up rankings points in the second half of the WTA season falls flat. Why do it?
Trauma does visit human beings in many forms, but there is an especially scarring dimension of trauma when it is forced upon human beings by other people. A disease is considerably scary, but it is part of the mystery of the body. A home invasion and an attack carry a more personal nature — safe space is violated. Something normal — another person approaching a door for something as common as dropping off a piece of mail or offering a plate of muffins (my mom’s nextdoor neighbor does that all the time) — becomes freighted with fear, or at least the suggestion or possibility of fear.
Athletes, as you know, depend on having a clear mind which gets out of the body’s way and allows for peak performance. When I critique an athlete, I do so under the assumption that an athlete is carrying on a relatively normal existence. When any two individual athletes play, or when two teams play, I am assigning common and shared characteristics to the participants. If I were to discover shortly after a match that one player’s grandmother had been taken hostage, or — in Serena Williams’ case against Jo Konta in San Jose earlier this year — that the killer of a family member had been released from prison, I would not assign any value to a losing performance by that athlete.
How could anyone ascribe significance to a subpar performance when the human — and humane — thing to do is precisely to think about things MORE important than a comparatively trivial athletic contest?
It is through this lens that Kvitova — dealt a uniquely bad hand by life — gets a permanent exemption from criticism of her tennis. If she ever did become a jerk, I would criticize her for that…
… but of course, it is universally known and rightly celebrated that Kvitova is a tremendous sportswoman, the epitome of a role model, a public figure who has carried her shattering, devastating moment with uncommon grace, courage and happiness.
She is an inspiration. Criticizing her for Wimbledon or the U.S. Open, or for going 0-3 in Singapore this past week, isn’t just trivial. It misses the point about Kvitova as a presence in tennis.
Yes, her tennis is worthy of coverage and analysis — I am not suggesting otherwise. I am merely saying that whether she wins or loses, she is a champion in ways which transcend scoreboard results.
At the end of this and every future tennis season, I want THAT to be the front-and-center focus of Kvitova’s tennis journey, so that none of us forget its primacy and centrality in Petra’s life.
It is victory enough that she is even playing. It is triumph enough that she played a remarkable match against Serena Williams in Cincinnati, one of the tennis feasts of the year. It is even more special that Kvitova won five titles in 2018, from St. Petersburg to Doha to Prague to Madrid to Birmingham. She won Madrid after starting the event on a Sunday, one day after playing the Prague final and not having a chance to rest. She did some remarkable things this year, and so it ought to be noted that yes, on raw merit, Kvitova achieved much on the court in 2018.
Yet, the big story surrounding Petra will always be much bigger than anything she does with a racquet. It is not a legacy she pursued. No one wants to be attacked and injured in a life-threatening way. Yet, it is the legacy which has been given to her.
Immunity from criticism? No, that doesn’t seem like a disproportionate reaction at all.
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