Welcome to Memory Lawn, where wtatennis.com will take a look back at some of the most memorable matches from the grass seasons of the past five years. Our retrospective of Birmingham continues, recounting some of the best matches from the recent editions of the Nature Valley Classic. In 2017, two players on the comeback trail, Petra Kvitova and Ashleigh Barty, squared off in a three-setter for the trophy.
2015: Kristina Mladenovic def. Simona Halep, quarterfinal
2016: Barbora Strycova def. CoCo Vandeweghe, semifinal
HOW THEY GOT THERE: Both of the players contesting the 2017 Nature Valley Classic championship match were attempting to punctuate comebacks with a victory at the Premier grass-court event.
For two-time Wimbledon champion Petra Kvitova, the event was her first appearance of the season on her most fruitful surface. It came at the outset of her heroic comeback to tennis after Kvitova had been attacked in her home by a robber in December 2016, where her serving hand was severely injured.
The Czech left-hander overcame the injuries during the rehabilitation period and returned to action just five months later, ahead of her doctors' expectations. A second-round showing at Roland Garros was a empowering effort in her first tournament of the year, as Kvitova proved her resilience as well as her determination to return to the peak of her powers.
When Kvitova stepped onto the grass courts of Birmingham, her form returned with unparalleled swiftness. Kvitova powered into the quarterfinals, losing just nine games in two matches, then defeated 2015 semifinalist Kristina Mladenovic, 6-4, 7-6(5) to set up a final-four encounter with compatriot Lucie Safarova.
Safarova struggled with a right thigh injury before retiring from their all-Czech encounter, paving the way for Kvitova to reach the final in just the second event of her comeback. Kvitova was one win away from a stunning title run -- but she would first have to get past a final opponent who was blazing her own resurgent trail.
Ashleigh Barty had become known as one of the most prodigious tennis talents in 2011, when she zoomed to the Wimbledon girls’ singles title at the age of 15. Her rise through the professional ranks was steady in singles and incredible in doubles, as the Australian paired with her friend and countrywoman Casey Dellacqua to reach three Grand Slam women’s doubles finals in 2013.
Following the 2014 US Open, though, Barty stepped away from tennis for over a year, focusing instead on her family life and a stint as a professional cricketer. Rejuvenated upon her return to tennis in 2016, Barty quickly established proficiency on grass that season. During that year, she won 12 matches in three events on that surface, including a quarterfinal run at Nottingham ended by a 7-6(2), 7-6(7) loss to Karolina Pliskova.
The very next year, 2017, became Barty’s breakthrough season in singles. The Aussie romped to her first WTA singles title in Kuala Lumpur in March as a qualifier, locking her Top 100 debut. As the summer kicked off, another Nottingham quarterfinal appearance the week before Birmingham solidified her prowess on grass.
Arriving to Birmingham, Barty started her run by getting past Marketa Vondrousova, Barbora Strycova, and an injured Camila Giorgi in the opening rounds, before notching a come-from-behind victory over Garbiñe Muguruza in the semifinals. (Muguruza would go on to win the Wimbledon title mere weeks later.)
Thus, the stage was set for a scintillating final between two surging stars.
WHAT HAPPENED: Coming into the final, Kvitova had won her only prior meeting with Barty, 6-1, 6-2, but that had come on the clay of Roland Garros five years earlier, at a time when Barty had yet to crack the Top 300 of the WTA singles rankings.
Indeed, this encounter started quite differently, as the Australian continued to show off her skills on grass courts. Barty earned an early break to go up 2-1, and held onto that lead throughout the opening frame. Barty did not face any break points until she served for the opener at 5-4, and erased Kvitova’s two chances in that game en route to the one-set advantage.
However, Kvitova began to take control early in the second set, earning an early break in the second game after a thumping service return on break point forced an error from Barty. The vaunted Kvitova power game on grass led her to a quick 5-1 lead, and after a minor stumble in her first chance to serve out the set, the Czech slammed an ace to close it out 6-3.
Kvitova held onto her momentum as, from 2-2 in the decider, she rattled off the final four games of the match, sealing victory with one final ace. With the force of 35 winners behind her, Kvitova claimed an emotional title in just her second event back on tour, by the score of 4-6, 6-3, 6-2. It also served as her 20th career WTA singles title.
WHAT THEY SAID: “Overall, I'm very, very happy, of course -- I didn't expect this in my second tournament after my comeback,” a delighted Kvitova stated in her post-match press conference. “I think it's kind of a fairytale.”
“All week, the body and the mind is so intense, and today I was kind of nervous before the match and through the first set as well,” the Czech said. “I was up and down in the match.”
Kvitova was pensive about her tremendous comeback from the home invasion just half a year prior. “It's hard to say anything, but I think I've been through a very difficult time in my life, and it wasn't about the tennis, but about to come back healthy and alive and move my fingers properly and everything like that.
“And this is something clearly special. It's some bonus to have in my life and my career and everything. And that's [why] I fight that hard to come back to play tennis. I always said that I'm not here just to play tennis, 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.”
Kvitova admitted that she “got a little bit emotional” in the last game of the match. “But it was just for a while, and I'm happy that it came because it means a lot that I'm still able to play well after that.”
Meanwhile, Barty took the close loss in stride, calling it a “pretty high quality match” afterwards.
“I’ve played some quality tennis and lost to only a couple of good players,” said the rising Australian. “So I’m really excited and I can’t wait to get to Wimbledon.”
WHAT IT MEANT: 2011 and 2014 Wimbledon champion Kvitova could hardly be expected to have returned to consistent world-beating form by this point, and at the grasscourt Grand Slam, which was her next event, the Czech fell in the second round to unseeded American Madison Brengle.
Nevertheless, Kvitova proved her tremendous strength throughout the rest of the season. The Czech went on to make the US Open quarterfinals and Beijing semifinals, never dipping out of the Top 30 despite missing the first five months of the year. She would go on to return to the Top 10 in February 2018, where she would stay for the next two years.
Barty, meanwhile, continued her climb. Despite a loss in two very tight sets to No.4 seed Elina Svitolina in the first round of Wimbledon weeks later, the Australian rebounded from her hiatus successfully, ending 2017 inside the Top 20 for the first time in her career.
It has only been uphill from there, as Barty won her first Grand Slam women’s doubles title at the 2018 US Open, then shot to the top of the singles game in 2019, winning Roland Garros, the Shiseido WTA Finals Shenzhen, and reaching World No.1.
Kvitova and Barty have also pulled together a tremendous rivalry, bolstered by their public mutual respect for each other.
😘— Petra Kvitova (@Petra_Kvitova) February 28, 2020
Kvitova won a classic encounter in the 2019 Sydney International final, and won a follow-up match at the 2019 Australian Open to clinch her fourth straight victory over Barty, on her way to her most recent Grand Slam final.
Barty, though, upset the Czech en route to the 2019 Miami Open title, and that was a turning point. Since then, Barty had defeated Kvitova four straight times, pulling their head-to-head to 4-4. Kvitova, though, is back up a match after winning their most recent three-set tussle in Doha earlier this year.
As professional tennis plans to return from its own hiatus in 2020, the prospect of more barnburners within this rivalry will be heavily anticipated.