Czech, Mate!

With nine players in the Top 100, the Czechs deserve a representative in the Top 10. In Petra Kvitova, they now have her.

Published May 07, 2011 03:34

Czech, Mate!
Petra Kvitova

MADRID, Spain - The match was, in the words of her coach, David Kotyza, "hectic" towards the end. Something of a "horror", in fact. But no matter, because in beating Dominika Cibulkova in the quarterfinals of the Mutua Madrid Open on Friday, Petra Kvitova not only booked herself a place in the last four at the prestigious event, but secured her Top 10 debut when the rankings are released on Monday.

"If it is true, it is reward for all the performances she has given this year," Kotyza said to the Czech tennis press after Kvitova's win. "It's a bonus for all her hard work and fight." 

It is, indeed, true - a dream come true. Two months after her 21st birthday, Kvitova becomes the sixth Czech woman to grace this elite since computerized rankings were introduced in 1975 - continuing a tradition that began with another lefty almost four decades ago. The trailblazer was, of course, the legendary Martina Navratilova, who hit the Top 10 before she became a US citizen - and, not surprisingly, was the childhood idol of the latest arrival.

In between, the country produced other sublime talents: four-time Grand Slam singles winner Hana Mandlikova, who rose as high as No.3 in the world; Helena Sukova, who went to No.4 in singles and won 14 doubles majors; and Jana Novotna, another former doubles No.1 who collected 12 major doubles titles, peaked at No.2 in singles, and enjoyed an emotional singles triumph at Wimbledon in 1998.

More recently, Nicole Vaidisova rose as high as No.7 in 2007. But even as Vaidisova's promising career began to stall, Kvitova was signaling her own potential. An early warning was issued at Memphis in early 2008, when, as a qualifier ranked No.143, Kvitova became the lowest-ranked player ever to beat Venus Williams, who was No.8 at the time. Soon after, and making her Grand Slam main draw debut, she reached the last 16 at Roland Garros.

Kvitova's first title came at Hobart in January, 2009. Over the course of the next two seasons she was was often impressive - notably reaching her first Grand Slam semi at Wimbledon last year - but also inconsistent. But that all changed in Australia this year. Kvitova won the Brisbane International in fine style, then marched to the quarters of the Australian Open, upsetting home favorite Sam Stosur en route.

Having risen inside the Top 20, the sense that a star had been born was reinforced in the weeks that followed, starting with fierce wins over Cibulkova and Daniela Hantuchova in the first round of the Fed Cup.

"Her level of play was unbelievable," said a shell-shocked Hantuchova. "She's just brave - she plays like she has no pressures, swinging at every shot. And at the moment, everything's going in. "I think it's just a matter of time before she cracks the Top 10."

For her part, the disarmingly low-key Kvitova wasn't giving much away. "I feel good, but I don't really feel any different," she said of her form before heading off to the Paris Indoors, where, seven days later, she stunned Kim Clijsters for a maiden Premier title. As well as lifting her into the Top 15, the result seemed to prove she was ready to be a regular contender.

Having a player in the Top 10 might also been seen as a just reward for Czech tennis, which has quietly punched above its weight in recent years, thanks to a wealth of fine coaches and determination on tap. 

Currently, this country of 10 million people has nine players in the Top 100: Kvitova, Lucie Safarova, Klara Zakopalova, Lucie Hradecka, Iveta Benesova, Barbora Zahlavova Strycova, Zuzana Ondraskova, Andrea Hlavackova and Sandra Zahlavova. Hot on their heels, the 19-year-old Pliskova twins, Karolina and Kristyna - the 2010 Australian and Wimbledon junior champions, respectively - are making progress in the senior ranks and should breach the Top 200 soon. 

Adding to Kvitova's exploits, it's been a particularly good year for the Czechs in doubles too. At 35, Kveta Peschke is still ranked No.4 in the team discipline and gave the Czechs a presence in the title match at Madrid as well, partnering Slovenia's Katarina Srebotnik. Benesova and Zahlavova Strycova won the title at Barcelona last week, becoming the first team to pocket three trophies in 2011 after earlier wins at Sydney and Monterrey. And Hlavackova and Renata Voracova recently won at Fès.

Czechoslovakia won the Fed Cup four times in the 1980s, but the Czechs have not triumphed since parting ways with the Slovaks in the early 1990s. Having beaten Belgium in April's semis - Kvitova again captured both her singles rubbers - they will be underdogs when they meet Russia in Moscow in November's final. But they have terrific team spirit, and captain Petr Pala has plenty of options. And, who knows, by then they might even boast a Grand Slam champion among their ranks.

"When I played yesterday, I thought a little bit about this win because I knew that if I won I would be in the Top 10," Kvitova confessed after brushing aside Li Na in Saturday's semis in Madrid, to set an appointment with Victoria Azarenka. "It was not too good, but today was better.

"It's good to be in the Top 10, but it's only a number," she added. "I still want to get better and better."

- Adam Lincoln

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