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Tennis goes East

Kevin Mitchell

With the rise of Djokovic and Kvitova, the Eastern Bloc is at the centre of the game.

On his way home to Belgrade to “celebrate like a Serb” after winning Wimbledon, Novak Djokovic said his four wins this year over Rafael Nadal before Wimbledon helped him beat the Spaniard. Nadal agrees.

“I had in the back of my mind during the match those wins I had against him this year,” Djokovic said, “and I tried to manifest them. I think they helped me.” Nadal concurred: “When we arrived at 5-4, those moments probably affected me a little bit.”

Djokovic says his extraordinary dominance over the past six months, in which he lost only once, to Roger Federer, in 49 matches, was down to a “change in my head” when he helped Serbia win the Davis Cup in December. It gave him the self-belief he had previously lacked against the two best players in the history of the game.

“[Nadal and Federer] always perform their best tennis in the last four [the semifinals onwards] of a grand slam. That’s been the case the past five or six years. I knew that if I wanted to win against them in the semifinals and finals of grand slams I had to raise my game.

“They made me a better player - and right now, with that mental switch that I have.”

Djokovic said he might never have been a tennis player had his parents’ love of skiing not led them to live in the mountains near the Serbian capital when he was young. It was there that the former Yugoslav star Jelena Gencic spotted him when he was eight, playing on one of only three courts.

“I would probably have been a skier, a football player, a student,” he said. “If I didn’t have those three tennis courts up there, God knows if I would [have started playing] tennis because nobody in my family ever touched a tennis racket before me. There was no tennis tradition whatsoever.” For those three courts, tennis fans should be grateful.

Petra Kvitova drives a Skoda and her English comes in considered little lumps, with no artifice. The bright new force in the women’s game will let her tennis do the talking and her smile embellish the story of a country girl from the Czech Republic.

She is from a small town near the Polish border, Fulnek, which, she is happy to tell us, “is nothing special, 6 000 people, four tennis courts, one football ground and a castle”.

Just your run-of-the mill Moravian village, then - but Kvitova is no run-of-the-mill tennis player. The new Wimbledon champion, who played with an irresistible mix of power, subtlety and intelligence to confound the more graceful but fragile Maria Sharapova on Centre Court, is special.

She is 21 and getting better faster than anyone in the game. Within moments of her win over Sharapova bookmakers had made her favourite for next year’s tournament.

If the women’s game is in disarray, Kvitova might be the player to restore order. In a fortnight of mayhem that accounted for the early same-day departure of the Williams sisters, the exit of world No 1 Caroline Wozniacki and the defeat of the favourite, Sharapova, she rose without fuss from the outside courts to the centre of the game—a splendid, unassuming young champion.

“Last year I was here and I was 62 in the world and now I’m eighth and I won Wimbledon. It’s so quick. I don’t know why.”

Kvitova leaves those judgments to others. She plays with an instinctive lust for hitting a yellow ball that defies glib analysis. She gives the impression, probably legitimate, that there is no premeditation in her stroke play, that it flows from the moment. Nor is she worrying about her place in history. Asked if she thought she might be in the vanguard of a new era, she said: “I’m not thinking about that. I have no idea.”

Nor, believe it or not, had she thought much about her considerable change in circumstances. What emotions did she feel on becoming an instant millionaire? “Nothing. I don’t know. I don’t have an idea.”

Indeed, Kvitova will not be bulldozed into stereotypes. Her Skoda is not a battered old banger but a new one that does not need replacing, as she drives the hour’s journey to Fulnek from her flat in Prostejov. These are names and spellings at the centre of the tennis universe. The game has turned East.

Kvitova started in Fulnek with no great dream, another turn against preconceptions. “I didn’t think I would play professionally but, when I watched some tennis on the TV, it was Wimbledon,” she said. “I watched [Andre] Agassi and [Pete] Sampras, and of course [Martina] Navratilova.”

If the 21-year-old left-hander is reluctant to carry the game on her shoulders, she is happy to celebrate good days for the Czechs. There are nine of them in the women’s top 100.

“We do not practise in the same club, the Czech girls, but it’s good to know we have so many talented players. We are like family.” Happy days in Fulnek.—

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