Australian Open 2019

Australian Open 2019: Kvitova makes emotional return to Major semis with win over Aussie darling Barty

Petra Kvitova is through to the Australian Open semi-finals after beating Ashleigh Barty

If ever a former Major champion has looked the part more than Petra Kvitova at this year’s Australian Open, it must have been a close call.

The story of this much admired, much loved Czech woman, who won Wimbledon at the age of 21 way back in 2011, won it again in 2014, but then endured what looked like a career-ending attack in her own home at the end of 2016, is a familiar one to tennis fans. That this disaster came after glandular fever in 2015, and then a stress fracture in her foot during 2016 surely tested the former world No2 to the limit.

But then the story of her sunny, optimistic return six months later, after extensive surgery to her playing left hand, was more heart-warming and memorable than anything that had gone before. Few who saw her, on that first day back at Roland Garros, will forget the smile:

“The tennis is a joy now… I felt like the tennis was taken away from me, and it wasn’t my decision. Suddenly I couldn’t do what I love.”

Then she added:

“I see life a little bit from a different angle… I had the time in my career when I was really thinking if I have motivation, if I want to play—I took the time off in 2015, but now suddenly something happened, and I couldn’t play, and I really saw that tennis is very important in my life… And I mean, now I can just enjoy everything and even—it’s beautiful weather outside. Sometimes I just stand outside and see the sun and say, ‘It’s beautiful.’”

That year of her return, she would win on the grass of Birmingham, make the quarters of the US Open, and the semis of Beijing. Last year, she led the tour with five titles, and this year, she started with a bang, winning the Sydney title. And she had to beat the woman she would now face in the Australian Open quarter-finals in that Sydney final: Ashleigh Barty.

And the Australian’s was also a story worth the telling.

It was back in 2013 that the many talents of Barty, still age just 22, began hitting headlines with precocious runs to three Major finals with Casey Dellacqua, yet she managed just two match-wins at Major level in singles before deciding after the 2014 US Open, age 18, that she would take an indefinite break from tennis.

It would be two years before she returned to the pro tour after spending a successful period playing league cricket in Australia, and the next year she won her first singles title from three finals. Last year, it was two titles from three finals, but she also won big doubles titles at the US Open, Miami, Rome and Montreal. From a ranking of 271 at the start of 2017, she broke the top 20 by the end of that season, and is now at a career-best No15.

Her loss to Kvitova in the Sydney final a fortnight ago was as close as it gets, decided by a final set tie-breaker, and that form set Melbourne alight as she worked her way through formidable competition, including Maria Sakkari, and then Maria Sharapova, to reach her first Major quarter-final in singles.

But it was as much for her style of tennis as her unusual route to the elite level that she was becoming such a favourite. It recalled old-school, all court tennis, played in a composed, assured and nimble style by a petite woman in a largely big woman’s game. Few, whether Aussie or not, were not enamoured by her.

This match, then, promised much, played between two captivating back stories, two very contrasting styles, by two of the most popular players on the tour.

Yet it was Kvitova who proved to have the wind beneath her wings, looking fitter than at almost any time her career, and playing with assurance, power and focus.

She broke in the second game, at the third time of asking, but then had to battle to a second hold via break point to take a 3-0 lead that drained some of the simmering excitement from the Rod Laver Arena.

Barty got on the board for 3-1, but with 25 minutes on the clock, the Czech pulled off a perfect angled drop shot to break to love, 5-1, and had soon served it out, 6-1, in a blitz of first-strike tennis, 12 winners to two from her opponent.

Would Kvitova go off the boil, let her 78 percent serving level drop enough to allow the Aussie’s all-court abilities break this rhythm? A glimmer of hope emerged in Kvitova’s first service game of the second set, a double fault, and then a shanked error, followed by a stunning backhand by Barty onto the rear corner of the court: break points for the Australian.

It was snuffed out by two aces, but Kvitova faced trouble again in the fourth game, another break chance. No matter: Her huge swinging serve, a net attack, and a backhand winner down the line ensured three straight points.

Barty, though, maintained her calm demeanour, and her serve was improving all the time, hard to read, varied, drawing errors. A love hold, and Kvitova was at the line again, but she replied in kind with a love game, 3-3.

Even a time violation on serve for Kvitova did not divert her: the intensity was palpable, and she screamed her way to the winning point, 4-4.

Barty tried it all, and increasingly deployed the drop shot to drain the energy of the tall Czech, but thus far Kvitova was up to the test. And her big, wide-sweeping forehands worked a break chance at the key moment. Kvitova would serve for the match, 5-4, and did so in style—a smash, plus an unreturnable serve—to reach her first Major semi since she won that 2014 Wimbledon title. It had taken just 68 minutes, and delivered 25 winners to only eight by Barty.

Kvitova will now play the unseeded Danielle Collins, who came back from a set down against Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova, 2-6, 7-5, 6-1.

Coming into this year’s Australian Open, Collins, a two-time NCAA collegiate tennis champion, had never won a Major match before. Now, after playing on the Rod Laver Arena for the first time, she will contest her first semi-final, having taken out world No2 Angelique Kerber, No19 Caroline Garcia, and No14 Julia Goerges on the way.

But Kvitova’s victory had repercussions for the current world No1, Simona Halep. Having lost to Serena Williams in the fourth round, Halep will have to give up the top ranking after the tournament. Kvitova has now overtaken the Romanian on points, while Naomi Osaka, Elina Svitolina and Karolina Pliskova also have a chance to overtake her when they take to court for the other two quarter-finals come Wednesday.

For now, the stage is set for a glorious conclusion for what Kvitova called her ‘second career’:

“I always wanted to come back and play on the highest level I can, compete with the best, play the Grand Slams, actually be very deep in the Grand Slam, which is happening. Yeah, it just took me a bit to the tears, but it was happy tears, for sure… I’m calling it as my second career.”

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