DOHA, Qatar - A second-round clash between former champions at the Qatar Total Open ended in victory for No.8 seed Petra Kvitova, who came from behind to defeat the unseeded Carla Suárez Navarro 4-6, 6-3, 6-0 in one hour and 43 minutes.
The pair have been squaring off for 12 years, having first met in Fed Cup action in 2009 and split their previous meetings six apiece - but today, Kvitova overturned two perhaps surprising patterns in their rivalry. Coming into this week, it was the Spaniard who led the head-to-head 5-3 on outdoor hard courts - and who was unbeaten in their three previous Middle East encounters, in Dubai 2014 and 2015 and Doha 2015.
"She's very dangerous player for me, definitely," accepted Kvitova afterwards. "She likes to play slice, she has a great backhand and she mixes up the game a lot. So it took me a while to get used to [her] and to find my rhythm, which luckily I did. That was the difference between the first and the last set."
Two-time Wimbledon champion Kvitova had been forced to withdraw from the St. Petersburg quarterfinals two weeks ago due to illness, and opened in patchy form against an opponent playing her final season on the WTA Tour. But the Czech would raise her game to supreme heights to run away with the match, finishing with 39 winners to 29 unforced errors and six aces.
Afterwards, Kvitova paid tribute to Suárez Navarro after ending the 31-year-old's Doha career. "She is definitely loved by us for sure," said the World No.11 warmly. "She's a great person on and off the court. She always plays fair play. Talking in the locker rooms, laughing. She loves to play soccer as well, so we always get it a little bit of it. She's a great competitor as well. She always fights, she never gives up until the end. So glad for her career and I'm for sure going to miss her on the tour."
A fine serving performance from Suárez Navarro was the foundation of a rock-solid opening set from the World No.70. The 2016 champion landed 74% of her first serves, with the body serve proving particularly effective at keeping her opponent at bay; Kvitova would consequently be unable to get hold of her returns on a consistent basis until the final game of the set, and was further undone by a meagre 41% first serve percentage of her own.
On return, Suárez Navarro would get her opportunity in the fifth game, when Kvitova offered up a curate's egg of a service game featuring two double faults and two aces. The former World No.6 seized her chance with alacrity, firing a gorgeous backhand return down the line to capture the break - a lead she would maintain for the rest of the set, notwithstanding a tense six-deuce tussle to serve it out in which she had to save three break-back points and needed four set points of her own.
Kvitova may have lost that game, but it was the first in which she had really pressured the Suárez Navarro serve - and it was that energy that the Czech took into a second set in which both players reversed their roles. Most notably, Kvitova raised her first serve percentage to a healthier 74% - and would face only one break point, to which she responded with two service winners and another ace to hold for 5-2.
"I think it was the game when I was down 5-4 in the first," Kvitova pinpointed as the start of her turnaround. "Even though I lost it and I had a few break points, but finally I find something in me, I find the rhythm as well in that game, so that helped me a lot to the next games, for sure. But I think I was too hectic, in a way. I was trying to make a winner for the first or second shot, which I shouldn't do that risky probably, just be a little bit more patient and find good spots."
The opening stages of the set featured a vintage Kvitova purple patch as she ran rampant with her power, flashing three groundstroke winners off both wings to capture the Suárez Navarro serve in the second game. As in the first set, that single break would be sufficient: with her winner count raised from 13 to 15 and her unforced errors reduced from 15 to 11, Kvitova found the right balance to navigate through the one moment of danger and eventually level the match with a service winner.
Now in full flow, the former World No.2's game reached unplayable heights in the third set. A series of fine dropshots illustrated her burgeoning confidence, but as she captured the Suárez Navarro serve three times and limited the seven-time Grand Slam quarterfinalist to just six points in the decider, it was Kvitova's familiar power that proved too much for her opponent. The 2018 champion accelerated towards the finishing line, with three consecutive brutal returns - two of them clean winners - garnering her a 5-0 lead, and three straight service winners carving out match point for the bagel - taken emphatically as Kvitova slammed away a smash.
Next up for the Australian Open quarterfinalist will be 2017 Roland Garros champion Jelena Ostapenko, who - in a contrast to her epic first-round win over qualifier Jil Teichmann - needed only one hour and 19 minutes to complete a 6-1, 6-2 victory over Barbora Strycova.