BIRMINGHAM, Great Britain - Petra Kvitova came to the Aegon Classic in hopes of getting some good matches in on grass ahead of her beloved Wimbledon. She walked away with her first grass court title since winning Wimbledon in 2014. The Czech lefty made good on her wildcard entry into Birmingham, rallying to beat No.77 Ashleigh Barty 4-6, 6-3, 6-2 to win her first title of 2017 in just her second tournament back since the horrible attack in her home seven months ago.
"I didn't expect this in my second tournament after my comeback," Kvitova said after the match. "So yeah, I think it's kind of a fairytale."
Two takeaways from Kvitova's Birmingham triumph:
Rather improbably, Kvitova is now on the shortlist of favorites for Wimbledon.
It is improbable not because of any lack of confidence in the Czech's game. A Wimbledon champion in 2011 and 2014, Kvitova's big-serving, flat-hitting, lefty power game is built for success on the turf. But after six months away from the game and with a recuperating left hand that Kvitova says is still a work in progress, it was only fair to keep any expectations in check when she announced her return last month at Roland Garros.
But through two tournaments, Kvitova is now 6-1. She mowed down the field to advance to the Birmingham final without the loss of a set, including a strong win over one of the best players of the season, Kristina Mladenovic, in the quarterfinals. That match served as the first significant test for Kvitova and she won 6-4, 7-6(5). The second major test came in the final, where she was forced to dig deep and rally from a set down to overcome a strong performance from Barty.
"I was nervous," Kvitova said. "It wasn't the normal nerves like I had before. It's my first final after such a long time and it was a bit difficult to handle it."
Kvitova handled it well. She flipped a switch at 2-2 in the third set and began firing from all sides, reeling off the last four games in a sprint to the finish. That display in the final games of the third set was a glimpse of the Kvitova of old, dominating from the baseline and rendering her opponent a mere spectator. And yet to hear Kvitova describe it, she can only improve.
"I struggled a lot," she said. "But still, in the end, it's nice when you win when you're playing well, but most of the times the best days are when you win when you are not playing well. So I'm happy that I was able to win it anyway."
Kvitova has shaken off the competitive rust.
At the French Open, Kvitova said stepping on the court and getting to play a match was a victory. Her lack of competitive match play showed in the second round, where she had a barrel of break points and game points but couldn't convert, losing a competitive straight set match to Bethanie Mattek-Sands.
That rust was less evident in Birmingham. Kvitova was broken just five times in the tournament and she broke serve at least three times in each of her five matches. Down a set against Barty she dug in to take the second. Again, with her back against the wall in the third she backed herself and went for her shots.
"One of the positive things which I had in Paris against Bethanie, that I had still the fighting spirit," Kvitova said. "I wasn't really worried, but I just didn't know how everything would be.
"So today I knew that it's there. I didn't have to be worried about it if it will come or not. But the important points I think the fighting spirit was there, and I'm happy that I still managed to show it, to feel it. It's amazing to feel it again."
Setting aside the emotional and personal triumph, Kvitova's level in her two tournaments back is remarkable given the circumstances. The weapons that have proven over the years to be devastating on on all surfaces, but particularly on grass, have been firing.
In three of her five matches she won over 80% behind her first serve and in all five of her matches she won over 50% of her second serve points. In her two toughest matches of the week, a tough straight set win over an in-form Kristina Mladenovic and against Barty, she won over 72% of her first serve points. In the final she powered down 13 aces.
"I always said that I'm not here just to play tennis," she said. "I'm here to play my best and to win trophies, like today. So I have to say I'm kind of proud of myself that I did it today."