Petra Kvitova may have won the WTA Elite Trophy in China last weekend, but her victory was not entirely impressive. On the one hand, it was obviously wonderful for Kvitova to win a tournament (only her second of the year, after winning the Wuhan Open earlier on the “Asian swing” of the WTA tour). On the other hand, it was a travesty that she was even competing in the WTA Elite Trophy, given that it was really for the “sub-elite” players who did not make it to the WTA Tour Finals. It was the first time since 2011 that Kvitova had failed to make the end-of-season showcase, which showed how poor her 2016 season has been overall. Nevertheless, the hope now for her and her fellow Czechs is that she has found form just in time for the Fed Cup Final against France this weekend, when the Czech Republic will be going for a hat-trick of wins and an astonishing fifth win in the last six years.
Ultimately, 2016 will go down as a disappointing season for Kvitova, as she was laid low by illness, injury and even changes of coach. She suffered from a gastric illness at the start of the year, which may have accounted for her early exit at the Australian Open in January. That physical problem was then compounded by a parting of the ways with her long-time coach, David Kotyza, the man who had overseen her rise to Wimbledon champion in 2011 and 2014, but who she obviously felt could not take her any further. Having appointed Frantisek Cermak, another Czech (albeit a doubles rather than singles specialist), to replace Kotyza, there was hardly an upturn in results. In particular, she was defeated at the French Open by Shelby Rogers, an American unknown, in a match that produced one of the most bizarre Grand Slam results ever. Kvitova may have won the second set on a tie-break but she was double-bagelled in the other two sets. Even at Wimbledon, where the grass suits her powerful ground strokes and attacking play, Kvitova succumbed relatively meekly in the third round to Ekaterina Makarova, the Russian veteran, losing in straight sets after losing two tie-breaks. It was her worst Wimbledon performance since 2009 and presaged her sliding out of the world’s top 10 for the first time in three years. When she then lost in the last 16 of the US Open to Angelique Kerber, the eventual winner and the woman who has effectively replaced her at the top of the women’s game with her power and accuracy, she parted company with Cermak. To adapt the classic Oscar Wilde quote, “To lose one coach in a year may be regarded as a misfortune; to lose two looks like carelessness”.
It is only in the final part of the year, on the tour’s Asian swing, that Kvitova has finally found the form that has eluded her throughout most of 2016. Her victory at the WTA Elite Trophy may have been somewhat bittersweet (the fact that she was playing in the tournament at all, rather than the main event of the WTA Finals, was a testament to her fall from grace this year), but none the less it has come at the right time for her to make a challenge for another Fed Cup win.
It is a curious statistic that Kvitova has won twice as many Fed Cups (four) as she has won Majors, but it is also proof of how much she loves playing for her country and how well she performs for it. She has been at the vanguard of the Czech domination of the event in recent years, first helping to defeat Russia in Moscow in 2011 and then backing up that display by helping the Czechs to beat Serbia on home ground in 2012. After losing to eventual winners Italy in 2013, the Czechs, with Kvitova once again to the fore, won back-to-back titles once more in 2014 and 2015, against Germany and Russia (again) respectively. Now, of course, they are bidding for a hat-trick of titles when they take on France this weekend in Strasbourg.
The Czech Fed Cup team of recent years, led by Captain Petr Pala, has already proved itself to be one of the greatest international tennis teams in either Fed Cup or Davis Cup history. It has been led on court by Kvitova, but she has been backed up brilliantly by a deep pool of talent, including the two Lucies (Hradecka and Safarova), Barbora Strycova and more recently Karolína Pliskova, who finally emerged from the shadow that Kvitova casts over other Czech women by reaching the US Open final this year.
The Czechs are a formidable team and are clear favourites against a France team competing in their first final since 2005 and bidding for a first win since 2003. Although the French, led on court by Caroline Carcia and captained off it by Amelie Mauresmo, will be tough opponents, especially at home, the Czechs, because of their recent stranglehold of the event, are rightly being backed by most observers to make it a hat-trick of wins.
The hope for Kvitova in particular is that a third Fed Cup win in a row, and a fifth in six years, will restore much of the confidence she has lost this year, in the same way that Andy Murray’s stewarding of the Great Britain team to Davis Cup victory last year laid the groundwork for his superlative 2016, culminating in his rise to World No.1 last weekend.
In a way, Kvitova has always been the ultimate “streaky” player, perhaps lacking the sheer mental fortitude and “stickability” on court to match Murray in becoming a World No.1, but with all the weapons (particularly a devastating forehand) to compete with any other woman, even Serena Williams, in any tournament. Having won Wimbledon in 2011 and 2014, Kvitova will hope to make it a hat-trick of “three-year” wins in 2017, perhaps to go with the hat-trick of Fed Cup wins she hopes to secure this weekend.
If she can regain her best form (which a third Fed Cup victory in a row would undoubtedly help with) next year, then Kvitova will join a growing group of women players at the top of the game who will slug and slash it out for the game’s greatest prizes in 2017. She is part of the younger cohort of players, alongside Kerber, Garbiñe Muguruza (the French Open champion) and her compatriot Pliskova, who will surely do battle with the great veterans of the game, Serena Williams, who is finally approaching the end of her career, and the returning Maria Sharapova. If all these women can show their best form over the next 12 months (and that is obviously a big “if”, as Kvitova’s own troubles in 2016 demonstrate), then the top of women’s tennis may be even more competitive than the top of the men’s game, now that Federer and Nadal are undoubtedly in decline and Murray and Djokovic have pulled away from younger rivals like Raonic and Thiem. Having been accused of being “the poor relations” of professional tennis for so long, compared to the fabulous foursome at the top of the men’s game, the women of the WTA may be about to achieve dominance in their field in a way that, sadly, eluded another woman – Hillary Clinton – this week.